“No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem – well, like you.” – James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
I’ve wanted to share my feelings about my spiritual journey towards Buddhism for some time now. I consider matters of faith and religion deeply private, and as someone who is forever pushing against labels that oversimplify our complex and ever-changing identities, I have been reluctant to claim this belief system as my own. Black and Buddhist? Seriously? Sounds about as crazy as a Black President! (Heh.)
Nevertheless, here I am. Several months ago I challenged myself to explore what has always been a passing curiosity in Buddhist philosophy and meditation. I’ve always appreciated the Buddhist emphasis on mindfulness, impermanence, and being present. But now I’m trying to move beyond using Buddhism as a kind of “self-help” to learn about its history and varying traditions. So far I’ve found it rewarding to apply these understandings to my own everyday, ordinary life of frustrated multi-tasking, unsatisfying materialism, and spiritual disconnection. I’m even meditating in the mornings. Which is strange, but for me, quite wonderful too.
Because I’ve also started taking a class with a local sangha, or Buddhist spiritual community, I’ve had to confront one of my ever-constant social anxieties – namely, being the only black person in the room. No matter how much I struggled with Christianity, I’ve always appreciated the down-home familiarity of black churches with the glorious women and their hats, stirring gospel music, and prayers for the “sick and shut-ins.”
It is hard to let go of the familiar and seek your own path. Like the Sanskrit Buddhist terms that sometimes feel clumsy in my mouth, I wonder to what extent a new belief system can (or should) “speak” to me in a cultural sense.
This is where the above quote from James Baldwin comes in. Although not a Buddhist, Baldwin wrestled with matters of faith and religion throughout his life, and like him, I have found that the blues offers one of the fullest expressions of this struggle. (Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about my musical fascinations.)
African Americans are, indeed, a blues people and it is through the words of Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Sidney Bechet, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and others that I’ve learned to appreciate the sacred aspects of the blues as a state of being, one that transforms our experience of anguish by giving it voice. Baldwin states:
And I want to suggest that the acceptance of this anguish one finds in the blues, and the expression of it, creates, also, however odd this may sound, a kind of joy. Now joy is a true state, it is a reality; it has nothing to do with what most people have in mind when they talk of happiness, which is not a real state and does not exist.
I think of the piano player in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” who led his brother into his own sea of suffering and, through melody and rhythm, taught him the difference between “deep water and drowning.” In Sula, Morrison speaks of a community with the passionate detachment found in a Bessie Smith song, able to confront hardship by acknowledging that “the presence of evil was something to be first recognized, then dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over.” Could such sentiments be re-articulations of the Four Noble Truths? I’m beginning to wonder if the anguish and joy of the blues was not my first introduction to the Middle Way.
The notion that blues people can also be Buddhists has been encouraging in this early stage of my journey — as is reading the reflections of African-American Buddhists, Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage), black feminist cultural critic, bell hooks, and writer Alice Walker, who has called The Color Purple, “a Buddha book that’s not Buddhism.” I was pleased to discover that this year’s Outstanding Woman in Buddhism, Dr. Jan Willis, is also African American.
None of these individuals cling to their blackness as a way to exclude others, but rather, they highlight their cultural experiences as part of their path to mindfulness and compassion; they use their encounters with racism and oppression to inspire thoughtful social action. It is this kind of empathy that gives blues people their power. I recall Janie’s words to her friend Phoeby in Their Eyes Were Watching God — “Yuh got tuh go there tuh know there” — and there is a part of me now that can’t help but also hear “Ehi passika,” the Buddha’s invitation to “come and see for yourself.”
Special thanks to Scott Mitchell’s great blog, The Buddha is My DJ, and his “Coming Out Buddhist” project for inspiring me to write this post. I’m taking my first steps through meditation and I’m summoning the courage to share this news with my most ardent Christian family members. There are so many questions yet to explore! Obviously I’m still learning, but I’m also looking forward to the journey, the anguish and the joy.
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