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Black folks have arrived. Thirty-five years after Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated a dream of an America that would see the fall of the wall that so severely divides us as races, we have come to hold a definitive place in the politics, economics, and culture of our country.
We have made contributions of enormous proportion in every area of society without limitation. Our stories and vision are woven into the fabric of the American Dream. We play an increasingly significant part in and sometimes even dominate business, academics, sports, arts, music, and even that most powerful tool, language, in not just America, but the world community. And while we haven't yet been privy to the unqualified equal access that we are entitled to, we have made it clear to all who are watching that we have the breadth and diversity to penetrate and inform every area of society from aeronautics to zoology. We have essentially said to America, "You may have been resistant to letting us in, but we are here. We have crossed the threshold and can no longer be ignored or turned away."
And there's another side to our continuing story of success. Along with political, economic, and cultural growth, we are taking a new look at our individual growth and sense of who we are and who we can be in the world. At a time when many of us are no longer plagued by just how we can survive and live, we can begin to ask how we can live better. The questions of who we are and what role we play as black people in America now have room to coexist with the larger questions, "Who am I, and what role do I play as an individual in the world?" We want to know how we can be better mothers to our children, brothers to our sisters and lovers to our partners. Some of us ask how we can best give back or contribute to the community that has nurtured us as well as it could and is itself in continued need of nurturing.
For much of our history, the black Christian and Baptist church has been greatly instrumental in helping us to navigate these soul-searching questions. And for so many of us, the church still provides space to retreat from the world long enough to regroup and process what our collective life is about. But just as we are widely diverse as a people, with a range of interests and experiences, our spiritual needs have also branched out and diversified. We now have the ability and, more important, the sense of entitlement, to explore beyond our own immediate traditions and look at what the world has to offer us to help resolve these questions that are critical to our spirits.
The West in general, and America in particular, have spent the last fifty years developing an affinity for and relationship with Eastern philosophies that address body, mind and spirit. In sometimes sharp contrast to the West's bold, pressing progress in technology and other sciences, the East has fostered a sensibility of immeasurable depth, and a reverence for wisdom that transcends the knowledge that can be found on the pages of a book or developed in a lab. As a country and as a people, we are coming to terms with the fact that oftentimes the race for outward material achievement is run at the expense of our inner sense of spirit and connectedness with our world, and even with our own individual lives.
While we don't necessarily have to be looking to replace our traditional religions, we can appreciate the benefit of weaving some of the very useful practices and ideals of ancient Eastern wisdom into our daily lives. Just as we have recollected the valuable aspects of the African-derived belief systems of Yoruba, Santería, and even Voodoo, many of us have also taken the liberty of exploring Islam, Hinduism, Sufism, or one of the different schools of Buddhism. We have seized the opportunity to incorporate such practices as honoring our ancestors, creating sacred spaces, and bowing down in thanks to the gifts that nature brings into our lives.
On the other hand, some of us are not even looking...or at least we haven't known it. Early in my life, like many young black children, I went to a Baptist church on Sundays with the woman who took care of me and doubled as my father's girlfriend after my parents separated. My dad was raised Catholic but was never a churchgoer himself, so I was the one that got to sing in the hand-clapping, foot-stomping choir with a paper doily pinned to my head, and who looked on in wondrous amazement at the women and men that "caught the Holy Ghost." They shimmy-shook their way down the aisle to the pastor to get a witness to the touching of their soul by a God and His Son that I didn't quite understand and never got a chance to see.
At eight, I got a new stepmother and a new church. The more reserved nature of the Protestant church, with its studious Sunday schools and engaging activities like Christmas plays and basketball, appealed to my mind. I became an admitted fan of the long-haired, blue-eyed Jesus I saw pictured in the heavy, all-white King James version of the Bible that my stepmother kept. I felt a connection to both the compassion that He must have felt to allow himself to be sacrificed for us, and to the depth of pain He suffered as He sought insight into His father's wisdom with the haunting query, "My Lord, my Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?" Still, by the time I was twelve, I declared myself an agnostic. I stopped going to church and fell out of sync with a lot of the people around me. As I got older, I noticed other ways in which I didn't quite fit in.
I didn't believe I had any sense of style or aesthetic because none of the art or design of things around me appealed to me. That all changed when I saw a traditional Japanese house and garden for the first time. I discovered that I didn't lack a sense of home, it was just that my sensibility was more attuned to the Eastern hemisphere than to the Western one. To put it simply, the clean, open space spoke to me and I could see how it could work for me without having to be filled up with things. Empty was no longer empty. After that encounter with "home," I began to see things with different eyes. It was as if I had been blind to the beauty of things and now I could see. It sounds silly now, but because I thought it was Japanese culture that I had found an affinity with, I ran off looking for any book I could find with the words "Japanese Culture" in it.
What I found was a classic Zen book called, what else, Zen and Japanese Culture, by a scholar named D. T. Suzuki who happened to also study Zen. He wasn't a priest or monk, but like many other people, he practiced Zen as a lay person. No robes, no titles, just an appreciation for a method of training that seemed to have the trappings of a religion, but at its foundation held something more, something profound. Being a scholar, Suzuki wrote about it. His writing did a lot to bring Zen to the West and to America, but I didn't know that then. All I knew was that it wasn't Japanese culture that I was having a love affair with...it was the culture and sensibility that came from Zen. Most of us think of Buddhism as one big religion or philosophy with a fixed set of beliefs, views, and practices. Sometimes that confusion comes from the way people talk about it. They say "Buddhists believe such and such" or "In Buddhism, they practice (blah, blah, blah)." People always ask me, "So you chant 'Namoo myo something, something,' right?" They've no doubt seen Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in the movie What's Love Got to Do with It? (For the record: Everything.)
There is no doubt in my mind that Buddhism is a religion. It has rituals, traditions, schools, and hierarchical structures. However, Buddhist philosophy, in its purest form, is just a set of principles to help you become awake to the life that you have so that you can live it more completely. If we go back to the original ideas and strip away the extras, if we take the "ism" out of what a brother named Buddha taught, then it's no more and no less than a way of planning your life. It's setting up your social structures and actively engaging your time on this planet by waking up and getting a fundamental grasp on what's really important.
With a little awareness of who we are and our shared humanity with others, we can begin to relax a little. It doesn't mean we drop our battles, say "racism and violence don't exist anymore," or lose our passion to push for the rights and space that we should have as human beings. Maybe, though, we can begin to approach those efforts more as the work that is here for us to do, like washing those dishes in our house after someone else ate off them, rather than as a struggle, which makes us feel constrained as soon as we hear it. We set ourselves up for an "Us vs. Them" mentality, which is dangerous and, in all honesty, unrealistic. Wherever we are is Our House, and we must all live in this house together.
Lessons and insights we can learn from Buddhism can be applied to our lives this very minute. No matter what your situation or station in life, no matter what the color of your skin or the obstacles you face, you can create a better life right now. Even in Buddhist countries around the world that is the main goal of everyday people. While the people of Tibet appreciate the effort of the monks toward attaining spiritual enlightenment in this lifetime, their day-to-day reality is that they want prosperity and peace in their lives. Not such a bad set of desires, given that we each have a set. Each of us wants basically the same things.
People of color are especially in need of new ways and new answers to the separation and fear we face each day. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that as black people, more than most groups in this country, we live our daily lives with the distinct taste of fear in our mouths. We have lived with it and incorporated it into the fabric of our being, so much so that on the surface we may not even be aware of it anymore. But the fear is there and it permeates every aspect of our lives. Proving we are not afraid. Insisting we are not so different. Or acknowledging that we are different and should be accepted that way. Sometimes, in an effort to attain equal footing, we forget what is most important for us to tend to: our hearts, our spirits, going home to family and friends.
We need a way to rise up and peek out from under the smothering blankets and stigma of racism, classism, and out-of-control individualism. But we also need a way to put into perspective our fundamental sense of separation and confusion. Our rage, our love, our dreams and disappointments, the death of our loved ones, the blissful joys as well as the cruel facts of life. It's not the way of white folks we need to get a grasp on, it's the way of life.
The Zen principles offered here can provide a framework for creating the meaningful life we want to live, without dogma and restrictions. They can give us direction for addressing our innermost spiritual questions and experiencing their relevance to our lives.
While they are not an antidote to the underlying reasons for our fears, they can give us a different way to approach those fears. They can give us insight into the nature of all of our feelings-good, bad and indifferent-thus changing the way we receive each experience and live each moment. They absolutely can help us see ourselves as inseparable from others and inseparable from the happiness and healing of others.
Really, the simple ideas and practices are about our daily lives, and they wouldn't be of much use if they weren't. We are a practical folk, aren't we? What we really need to address is the baby crying in the other room, the train fare we have to scrape together, the deadline that we need to meet, and that girl that sits in the next cubicle and works our last nerve. In short, we want to know how to be here in this life and be okay just as we are. Like sculptors, we want to take this messy lump of clay that someone told us is our life and make a masterpiece of it...no matter what we've been told about who we are and what we can or cannot become. I have discovered that there really is an art to being here in this world and, like any other art, it can be mastered.
Even when we do recognize that we would like to be part of some larger change in our community, we sometimes have the tendency to feel that we have to wait. We think we need to be "perfect" as individuals in order to begin the work of contributing to our collective benefit. Before she passed away, Sandra Jishu Holmes, cofounder of the Peacemaker Community and a well-loved Zen teacher, wrote in her journal, "Only the wounded healer is able to heal. As long as we think that spiritual leaders need to be perfect, we live in poverty. I have a perfect teacher inside; there is no perfect teacher outside."
I originally came to write this book from a place of pain because, like so many of us, I have been wounded and still share space with that pain. I believe, as Jishu wrote, that sometimes it is necessary to know pain, to be intimate with it, to help others to heal. In the course of my practice, my biggest lesson has been how to open my heart and be aware of how I am feeling. I have learned to allow my pain to be what it is, honor it, and be gentle with myself and whatever faults I perceive. From that place, my world-my capacity for compassion, gentleness and clarity-has opened itself up before me. I now embrace my heart that hurts because it is the very same heart that heals. I think our communities can benefit from this lesson.
Spirit refers to that which gives life. The study of spirit, spirituality, is concerned with the essence of what gives life meaning, what makes it worth living. We must develop our appreciation of the human spirit. Spirituality, which takes a step beyond the limitations of our senses and makes a practice of honoring that spirit, may be the only path we can take to lead us to the freedom that we are so desperately looking for. If we had to choose one ideal, it is Love and the true practice of compassion that is the only political, religious, social construct or modality that we need to see ourselves through. With it firm in our hearts, we can see the dream of a King become a reality.
My own great discovery about Buddhism, Zen, and meditation practice as a whole is that there really isn't anything very special about it at all. The longer you look for something "special" that is beyond yourself and the tools that you already have available to you, the less likely you'll be to find what is there.
You, just as you are, and your life right here and right now, are all there is and all you need to know. You don't have to do anything special. Mostly, you have to be open to meeting face-to-face, and even dancing with, the truth that pertains to your life right now. You have to find a way to collect your fractured pieces, examine them and then accept them as part of who you are. Spiritual practice is about transformation, but it's also, and more important, about working with what is. All of us must learn to honor our whole selves just as we come, just as we are. We can do this by just living, just doing, just Being Black.
Reprinted from Being Black by Angel Kyodo Williams by permission of Viking Publishing, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Angel Kyodo Williams. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Part I: The Nature of Our Existence
1. Four Simple Truths
2. Three Wonderful Treasures
3. Three Serious Poisons
Part II: Steps for Creating a Spiritual Life
4. Awakening the Warrior-Spirit
5. Laying Pure Foundation
6. Walking the Path
7. The Profound Act of Being Still
Part III: Living Every Day with Fearlessness and Grace
8. Lovingkindness: Discovering Compassion
9. Mindfulness: Grace and Seeing Things as They Are
10. Fearlessness: Claiming Your Warrior-Spirit
11. Wake Up: A Call for Transformation
12. Suggestions for Further Study: Pointing the Way
An Explanation of the Characters
What People are Saying About This
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
Angel's work is an important new step for Dharma in the West, her book is a classic.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
this book is very helpful if you are 'angry black man (or woman) who is searching for your point in life.