A surprising conversation about being black and Buddhist in America with award-winning writer Charles Johnson, interviewed by John Malkin.
John Malkin:In your new book, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, you say that you “marvel sometimes at the striking analogies between meditation and moments of intense creative inspiration.” What is the connection between Buddhism and your writing?
Charles Johnson: The first step in meditation is concentration for very long periods of time. That is to say, paying close attention to details. The artist, too, has to have very long periods of concentration. One must be very focused on minutiae, because it is in the minute things in everyday life that we find the richness of the world. Also, in both art and meditation, we have to get the ego out of the way. Right? It’s worried about writing a short story. That is, the ego’s probably using more energy worrying about doing it than actually doing it. Once you plunge into doing it, the ego kind of falls away because you’re working with a subject. You’re analyzing it. You’re exploring it. And the ego goes quiet for awhile. Of course, the ego is an illusion anyway.
John Malkin:That sounds very simple. Why aren’t we all able to do that?
Charles Johnson: It’s difficult because we have so many distractions. We live in a society where we’re bombarded by all kinds of sensory impressions. And television creates a short attention span. So one of the things we have to do is turn the television and radio off and sit quietly. Just attend to the world around us, and to our own thoughts, analyzing those and getting the ego out of the way. That takes a great deal of effort in a culture like ours.
John Malkin: In Turning the Wheel, you write that you have “embraced the Buddhist dharma as the most revolutionary and civilized of possible human choices.” And you go on to say that Buddhism is “the logical extension of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a ‘beloved community’ and W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision of what the world could be if it was really a beautiful world.” Tell me why you feel that Buddhism is revolutionary and civilized?
Charles Johnson: Well, my background is philosophy. I’ve looked at a lot of philosophical systems and religions. I think that Buddhism is the most radical and the most revolutionary possible of human choices because it goes right to the heart of human experience. It makes us look deeply within ourselves and examine what sort of ideas we create that distort our perception of the world. It’s very much about looking at the nature of the self. And it’s from the self—the mind—that all of our experiences arise. I don’t know of any other religion or philosophy that does that. I also think that Buddhism is the most civilized of possible human choices because at the heart of Buddhism is metta—loving compassion toward all sentient beings. Assuming a posture of harmlessness towards all sentient beings is, to me, the essence of what it means to be civilized.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Martin Luther King said that civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. I link King with Buddhism because his statements are very close to the idea of dependant origination. He talked beautifully about how the world we live in is one of mutuality in which we are all equally dependant on each other.
King embodies both social change and spiritual growth. That’s what made his 14-year public ministry—from the Montgomery bus boycott until his assassination in Memphis—as a leader so important. But the side of King that’s spiritual and ethical is often forgotten. People usually look only at the external battle of Birmingham or the marches and so forth, but King always said to demonstrators, “Our goal here is to eliminate social evil, but not to do it violently. And even more important, the ultimate goal is the beloved community.” Which is all men and women. And for a Buddhist, all sentient beings.
John Malkin: I often hear from people that social change and spiritual practice don’t necessarily go together—that one is more important than the other. People say that you need to engage in revolutionary social change or you need to be focused on spiritual practice—one or the other.
Charles Johnson: I don’t think that the two are at war with each other. I think working individually for spiritual growth is something we have to practice every day, regardless of what religious tradition we belong to. But by the same token I think daily spiritual practice naturally leads to action in the world. It’s healing rather than causing harm. In terms of the Eightfold Path, right conduct involves social engagement.
John Malkin: How successful do you think the civil rights movement has been in the United States. How much freedom do we have?
Charles Johnson: I think I received an answer to that very question from my father. He was born during the period of segregation. I asked him in the 1970’s if he thought there had been progress, and he said, “Absolutely.” He could remember what life was like in the South in the 1930’s. So, yes indeed, the civil rights movement transformed America in ways that are as far-reaching as the transformations caused by the Civil War one hundred years earlier. I am old enough to just remember remnants of segregation that I experienced when my family and I traveled south to visit relatives in the early 1950’s. We couldn’t eat in a diner: they would hand the food to us through the back door. Or in the town near where my father grew up in rural South Carolina, you couldn’t try on clothes if you were black. If you tried them on you had to buy them because none of the white patrons would want to try them on after you.
I do see a very different world after the civil rights movement. So many people have benefited from what those freedom fighters did. That is, women, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans. Anybody who comes to America who is not white will find a place that grants them far more freedom than people of color had in the 1940’s and early 50’s.
John Malkin: You use the term “apartheid” to describe the segregation systems of the United States’ recent past. How well do you think the people and government of the United States are dealing with this recent past? With the past treatment of Native Americans and African Americans?
Charles Johnson: I think that America is still struggling with the question of race and racial other. And by America I mean white Americans. I think we still live the illusion of believing in racial essences or that those people are different, whether they are Native American or black or Hispanic or whatever. In lots of ways the political question is really an enlightenment issue. That’s what we have to work for as educators and social activists. We all need to see, as Martin Luther King said, that we are caught in a web of mutuality. What affects one affects all.
John Malkin: You include an epigraph by Arnold Toynbee in Turning the Wheel: “The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event in the 20th Century.” I wonder what you feel about that. I’m also curious about what you think the United States has to offer to Buddhism.
Charles Johnson: First, I agree completely with Toynbee’s quote about the importance of Buddhism coming to the West. My sense of America sometimes is that we live in a very restricted, limited and provincial cultural fishbowl. It is very eurocentric in lots of ways, the emphasis being on things that white people have done, whether they are Americans or Europeans. And that makes perfect sense in a country that is predominantly white. It doesn’t make people of color feel very good, of course. They have to fight for their images in cultures like those.
But once you’ve sat outside that particular cultural fishbowl and looked back at it from the standpoint of, say, the Far East, you see things in a very different light. You see how the same questions have been handled differently. What is the nature of the self? What is the moral life? What is the nature of the universe? When we look at these questions from the East, we find answers that are very interesting and enriching. I truly believe that all cultures are our human inheritance and that we should be expansive in the ways that we look at the world. Every culture has something to teach us.
There are two million Buddhists in America right now, and that number is growing. I think what Americans might bring to Buddhism is a very acute social consciousness. That will be very interesting. There is a great emphasis in America today on Engaged Buddhism—acting in the world to remove those causes of suffering and evils that have harmed so many people. So yes, I think that there is an American contribution that can be made to the buddhadharma.
John Malkin: If I remember correctly, you said that you began meditating when you were 14 years old?
Charles Johnson: Well, that was my first moment of meditation. I discovered my mother’s book on yoga, and there was a chapter on meditation. I was a good reader, so I spent the next half hour trying it out. And it was the most profound experience I ever had up until then. When I came out of that sitting, I was shocked. I felt like I could be patient with my parents and if a friend said something that made me angry, I suddenly understood things from his point of view.
But I also felt at age 14 like I was handling a loaded gun. I was playing with something I didn’t really understand. So I said, “I’ve got to put this away for awhile.” It wasn’t until I was 19 and involved in the martial arts that I returned to it again. I began practicing meditation on a regular basis about 23 years ago.
John Malkin: You write in your book that, “Violence first begins in the mind.” Perhaps you can relate that to the world situation now.
Charles Johnson: I meditate on this question everyday. We live in a culture, a world actually, that is very violent. Just open up the newspaper any day and you’ll find violence on a massive scale, whether it is war or violence against women or against gays or children. It’s overwhelming. Buddhism asks us to think about this and to consider a challenge that is as important as a human being can take up: how can we live a nonviolent life 24 hours a day, seven days a week? That would be my goal in life. To lead a completely nonviolent life, in which I harm nothing, no other sentient being. And that’s going to be hard because you might step on something that is so small you can’t see it. In India there are Jains who carry brooms around to sweep in front of them so that they don’t step on things too small to see. We can’t do that here, but the ideal is living a nonviolent life.
We have to understand that violence is not just physical, which is the way it comes off in the newspaper. Before it was physical, violence was psychological. There’s violence in the way that we speak to each other—with disrespect. There’s violence in our comedies—the humor is often at the expense of another human being. So we have to look inward and ask ourselves three questions before we speak. The first question: “Is what we are about to say true?” Second question: “Is what we are about to say necessary?” The third question: “Is what we are about to say something that will cause no harm?” If you answer affirmatively to all three of those—it is true, it is necessary and it will cause no harm—then we should speak. Otherwise, we should consider our speech before we utter it.
Violence begins in the mind. It begins with anger. It begins with fear. And those things begin when we think dualistically. When we think in terms of “them versus us.” When we believe in our own separate ego, our separate life, not connected to anyone else. We have to meditate on this question, on the delusion of separateness and how it leads to psychological violence within us and then to external violence that causes so much harm in the world.
John Malkin: Even in movements for social change, people have taken up arms to defend themselves. I think of the Black Panthers or the Sandanistas. What is your view of movements that have advocated violence or a defensive violence?
Charles Johnson: I’m glad that you use that word “defensive.” Defensive about their position, right, and what they believe? One of the things critical to the Buddhist Eightfold Path is the first step: right view. Right view is the understanding that my view is not the only view that represents truth in the world. It’s understanding that other people’s views can be equally true. Martin Luther King, when he would talk to his staff and other civil rights workers, made a big point of asking them to consider the criticism that was coming their way. They knew that some of it was biased and not to be taken seriously. But if there was something that was truly critical and helpful, then that should be paid attention to.
One of the things we have to do, I think, if we want to implement social change, is give up the ego. We have to be more concerned about truth than we are about maintaining or defending our position or our own ideas. Buddhism’s practices of meditation and mindfulness help us give up our sense that “my view is the only view,” and “I will kill others or impose my views on others, if they don’t accept them.” I think it is very important for people to look at that.
John Malkin: In a 1923 speech entitled “Criteria of Negro Art,” W.E.B. Du Bois asked, “What do we want? What is the thing that we’re after? If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans, if your color faded or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten, what would you want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motorcars? Would you buy the most elaborate estate?” It is a question for people who have been oppressed, and I think that it is also a question for everyone. What do we want, really?
Charles Johnson: I love that quote from Du Bois. What is it we really want? Is it simply the mansions and cars and fine clothes and gold jewelry and stretch limos? Is that what we fought the civil rights movement for? Just so we can go and shop at Saks Fifth Avenue? I don’t believe that was the goal that Du Bois or King had in mind. Both men understood that our ultimate goal has to be service to others. Whatever we do in this life, whatever job we have, if you look at it carefully, you are in some sense serving others. I hope that in my books I’m serving readers. It doesn’t matter where you go, there is an act of service. Whatever job. And that really is the ultimate goal of an individual’s life, I think. It’s to serve others and to reduce suffering in our lives and in the lives of other people. It isn’t simply keeping up ephemeral, short-lived fortune because, again, everything is impermanent. So we have to see through that, to what is truly essential about how we live our lives.
Life presents us, every moment of every day, with opportunities for service. Whether we are talking about our relationships to our parents or to our wife or to our husband or to our children. Or in my case, to my students. Or to our neighbors or to almost anyone. We have multiple opportunities to practice harmlessness, service toward others and loving-kindness. I think that was the goal that was right there in that beautiful speech that Du Bois gave.
Charles Johnson, a Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle, has written four novels, including Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. He has also written two short story collections and a number of nonfiction books including Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970.