Reading for the Times: Black Lives Matter Meets Buddhist Fiction

If the year 2020 were organizing a monthly book club based on events, this month I would be reading works of fiction at the intersection of Buddhism and race in acknowledgement and support of Black Lives Matter. Two authors come immediately to mind for speaking to this junction of Buddhism and BLM: Charles Johnson and M. Lavora Perry.

In a previous blog post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have recommended the work of Charles Johnson, particularly his short story Dr. King’s Refrigerator. In that post I wrote that “Charles Johnson is an acclaimed scholar and author of Black American Literature. His novels and short stories often take up the theme of black life in America, but what many readers may not know is that Johnson is also a Zen Buddhist and he infuses his Buddhist perspective into his writing. Much has been written on his novel Oxherding Tale (1982) and the follow-on, award-winning novel Middle Passage (1990), both of which are at once Black American Literature and Buddhist fiction.”

I could also add that Johnson is a Buddhist and philosopher, and this combination of complexities comes through in his essays and fiction. If I had to characterize Johnson’s writing as a whole, his non-fiction and his fiction, I would say that his writing across genres is an exploration of the meanings of freedom, the freedom of Black Americans to construct personal identity outside of the horrific bondages of slavery, and the freedom from suffering sought by Buddhists for millennia.

In both non-fiction and fiction, Johnson writes candidly about race and being Black in America. His non-fiction anthology Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988) was a promulgation of his thinking on Black writing and philosophy. Decades later, the influence of Buddhism on Johnson’s philosophy of writing and thinking about race became evident in his non-fiction works Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2007) and Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice (2014).

Although sometimes not always overt, Buddhism is also evident in Johnson’s novels. What Johnson does in both Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage is to use the style of the slave narrative — usually an autobiographical account of enslaved Africans — to write intertextual works of fiction structured on Buddhist philosophical principles. So for example, Oxherding Tale is, on the surface, a fictional slave narrative about a biracial slave in the Southern US in the mid-17th century. The bi-racial characterization of Johnson’s protagonist, Andrew Hawkins, positions him between worlds that are white and black, worlds of freedom and slavery. The novel is structured in alignment with (and derives its title from) Ten Ox Herding Pictures. This series of ten pictures accompanied by short poems is a pictorial narrative that emerged in China as early as the 12th century and is attributed to the Buddhist monk Kuo-an Shih-yuan, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) master. As Martine Batchelor relates in the Spring 2000 edition of Tricycle Magazine, the series “depicts a young ox herder whose quest leads him to tame, train, and transform his heart and mind, a process that is represented by subduing the ox” [see pictures here]. The ox herder’s journey leads him toward enlightenment, and Johnson describes this novel as a kind of dramatization of the pictures. Just as the ox herder in the first picture has lost his ox (Buddha-nature) and is separated from his true self, so Johnson’s Zen inscribed slave narrative tells the story of Andrew Hawkins’ search for his true identity between a Black World and a White World. Oxherding Tale is full of complex characters, plot twists and turns, and tangled humour. But more to the point of this blog post, the novel is an overt commentary on race and Johnson’s ideas about African American Literature.

Likewise, the first person perspective novel Middle Passage is written in the style of the slave narrative and tells the story of freed slave Rutherford Calhoun. This protagonist is selfish by nature, a petty thief whose flight from his fear of marriage lands him back into captivity aboard a slave ship out of the American south, bound for Africa to collect slaves and return them via the Middle Passage, the slave sea route across the Atlantic from Africa to America. This novel is adventurous and daring, and it is permeated with and structured on the Buddhist concept of interdependent co-arising – the truth of our reality that everything arises from multiple causes and conditions, or everything is interconnected. As Rutherford learns, freedom does not mean disconnection from others but requires compassion for our own suffering as well as the suffering of others. Once again, the title Johnson has chosen — Middle Passage — has Buddhist undertones of the concept of the Middle Way, the path to enlightenment taught by the Buddha.

Either one of these novels would be a great book to read and discuss surrounding Juneteenth, the oldest known observation marking the end of slavery in the United States. This day, always on 19 June every year, is at once joyous and somber, a celebration of Black freedom and a reminder that freedom for Black Americans is still not fully realized. Moving forward toward that freedom will require every human being on the planet to tap into their compassion. I can think of no better work of fiction that exemplifies the hard work of employing and deploying compassion than M. Lavora Perry’s middle grade fiction novel Taneesha Never Disparaging (2008).

Perry’s novel is the first work of fiction published by Wisdom Publications, a Buddhist publishing house in Somerville, MA, that publishes works by great Buddhist teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In fact, Taneesha Never Disparaging is the first novel to feature a Black Buddhist girl. Taneesha is a fifth grader with lots of problems. Her best friend, Carli, wears a leg brace and lives with her father. Taneesha feels like she has to protect Carli from the local bully on the block. That’s if Taneesha isn’t arguing with her own inner voice, Evella, that tells her to deal with the bully in the opposite way that her family upbringing in Soka Gakkai (a form of Nichiren Buddhism) would have her do. On top of all of this, one of the boys in her class knows she is Buddhist and makes fun of her for it. The humour and amenity in Perry’s writing are like a balm for these trying times. Perry depicts Taneesha’s struggle to face her problems using the Buddhist principle of compassion just like it was taught in Chapter 20 of the Lotus Sutra. This chapter tells the story of the Buddhist monk who came to be known as Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. He was ridiculed, abused and shunned for never disparaging, never giving up on seeing the Buddha-nature in every single person he met, even those who were persecuting him. Eventually he gained a measure of enlightenment and became a bodhisattva, a being who is able to realize nirvana but refuses to do so until everyone is free of suffering, until everyone can realize nirvana. How can a bodhisattva realize nirvana only for themselves when Buddhism and their sense of compassion teaches that everything is interconnected? Such is the greatness of the compassion of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. Bodhisattvas are by their very nature agents for social change, and compassion is the key. Such compassion will be required moving forward from here to dismantle structures of social injustice in America and beyond. Who better to learn from than M. Lavora Perry’s  Taneesha, the first Black Buddhist bodhisattva in training? 

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