A Dharma for Blues People

dharma_wheel_1“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.

bluesman-3This 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.

y4r98The 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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13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by amd on July 1, 2009 at 1:17 PM

    thank you. i’ve been VERY curious for the last couple of years, but havent moved an inch toward any investigation. this gives me things to think about. appreciated.


  2. Posted by missincognegro on July 1, 2009 at 1:31 PM

    Thank you for sharing such a personal testament. I hear you though, with respect to letting go of that which is familiar. It takes much courage to let go of the familiar.


  3. Claudia, I really enjoyed your post. I think many non-Asian Americans probably feel a bit self-conscious about saying, “I am a Buddhist,” because it doesn’t feel like a birthright. I know I do. (Heck, maybe Christian-born Asian Americans have the same feeling!)

    I think it’s unfortunate that so many of our U.S. local sanghas are all white. But we Americans do have our segregation issues (still) in religion, and what’s to be done about it? Don’t know, don’t know.

    I feel happy for you and for your being on this path. Thank you for your post!


  4. Thanks for sharing your personal journey toward enlightenment…I started reading into Buddhism about ten years ago, but never committed to meditation. Still, the principles made a deep impression on me, so much so that when people ask my religion, I tell them I’ve been “inspired by Buddhist teachings” though I was raised in a hardcore Christian family. We each have to find our own way forward…one of the only things I remember from my freshman religion course is, “Be ye a lantern unto yourself…” (hope I got that right!)


  5. Posted by Rich on July 2, 2009 at 12:07 PM

    When I was in high school I read SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse – at a time when I was just beginning to question the beliefs I grew up with. Blew my mind. Don’t know for sure if I’d ever go the full route with Buddhism, but I can definitely see its appeal.


  6. Thanks so much for this great feedback, everyone. I really appreciate the words of encouragement! For those who may be interested, I have been reading and enjoying Angel Kyodo Williams’ Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace.


  7. Love your post, Claudia. Linking you for Little Lov’n Monday. I’ve been real slack with my spiritual life at a time when I really need the comfort and anchor of faith.

    Thanks for sharing this. Will have to remember to tuck away your references, too.


  8. Thanks Susan! I appreciate you sharing the link.

    And since I mentioned Scott Mitchell’s blog in this post, I want to give him another small shout-out, since he recently wrote a post that responds to a question I posed about Karma and the Middle Passage. It’s a fascinating discussion and one that is relevant to all faiths and belief systems. I wonder how Charles Johnson might respond to the topic? Or maybe he already has?


  9. Posted by r.Michael on August 4, 2009 at 2:02 PM

    I want to express my sincere gratitude for your decision to share your personal story on the internet. Although I am of mixed racial descent (european and Japanese), I entirely identify with your synthesis of Buddhism and “Blues People.” Although I have never faced serious confrontation about my identity externally, as a queer man, I have struggled with being a “blues boy” internally for the past 12 years.
    Although my mother was raised in Utah as a Buddhist, I grew up in Colorado and was never really exposed to Dharma truth until I left for college and decide to investigate Buddhism for myself. Since my search began I have had many of the same experiences your conveyed in your piece and I found your testimony of those experiences to be incredibly reaffirming. Thanks!!!


    • Thank you for those kind words, r.Michael! I’m so glad that you stopped by the blog and left a comment. It is encouraging to hear just how much we have in common and, when you think about it, that is what the blues is about – shared experience, both the good and the bad. :)


  10. […] “A Dharma for Blues People” – This post about my spiritual journey may be my most confessional and I’m amazed by how much I learned about myself in the process of writing it. It is also fitting that this post quotes from Toni Morrison’s Sula, the novel that gives our blog its odd name. […]


  11. Hi Claudia!

    Thanks for the comment on my Beliefnet post, I’m glad your enjoyed it.

    I actually read this post about your experience coming into Buddhism as a young black woman a few weeks ago. I’m sorry I didn’t comment on it then, I really should have. It was just after I read your story and was thinking about posting on my own blog that Ethan asked me to guest post on One City. I had hoped my story would reach newcomers such as yourself and help inspire you to continue the practice. I’ve been a Buddhist for a few years now and the practice has enriched and improved my life greatly. I wish you all the best as you start to explore Buddhist practice.

    I understand your feelings about leaving the black church. I too missed the familiarity of those “down-home” churches and the sense of community they provided. Even after I became a Buddhist, I’d join my mother at church just for the familiarity of the experience. Also, I loved your statement about how the black Buddhists you mentioned don’t “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..” I think this was what I appreciated Jan Willis’ memoir. I think all Buddhists need to work with their personal and cultural history and this is no different for black people. its refreshing to read how other black people have used their “blackness” as part of the path.

    Good luck with your practice! I know you’re just starting out and it can be a bit intimidating at first. Just know that you’re not alone out there and there are others who’ve gone through the same thing.

    Great Post!


    • Hi Evelyn, thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your kind comments about my post. See, this is why the internet is awesome. How amazing is that I get to connect with a kindred spirit in Kansas? I’m getting myself prepared for a one-day meditation retreat of sorts at my local center – have you ever been to a retreat? If so, I’d love to hear more about your experience (and if you’d ever like to email me directly, I’m at thebottomofheaven [at] gmail [dot] com).


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