Tag Archives: Charles Johnson

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? 

Charles Johnson’s Buddhist Fiction

This month, for the 33rd year, Americans commemorated the birthday of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. Since my brain marks time by books or stories, every January I am reminded of Charles Johnson’s short story “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” that was first published in his anthology Dr. King’s Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories in 2005 by Scribner.

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 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 love the short story “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” because it is sweet yet dignified: a young Martin Luther King, Jr. goes to the refrigerator looking for a late night snack and some writing inspiration. The story is also deeply perceptive, as the young minister and ABD Ph.D. Candidate finds insight into the interdependent nature of our world while previewing food on the shelves of his fridge. The short story reads on one level as a mundane slice of life, and on another level as a view into the workings of a brilliant, loving mind situated in an ontologically oppressive time and place.

You can read a version of “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” on the website Mindful.org at this link: https://www.mindful.org/dr-kings-refrigerator/  The story is a wonderful reminder to be grateful that we have appliances like refrigerators, and to keep an open mind whenever we open that refrigerator door.

“About vs. Of”

Reading works of Buddhist fiction is such a joy that sometimes I admonish myself for ever turning it into the locus of my dissertation project. Having to think seriously about it kind of takes some of the fun out of it. So far in my experience, the most challenging thing about approaching Buddhist fiction academically is trying to define it. I have tried to use genre theory to help with this, but it too is challenging. In the collection Contemporary Genre Theory, a volume edited by David Duff, he notes on the very first page that “In modern literary theory, few concepts have proved more problematic and unstable that that of genre. Having functioned since Aristotle as a basic assumption of Western literary discourse, … the notion of genre is one whose meaning, validity, and purpose have been repeatedly questioned in the last two hundred years.” Genre theory itself is dynamic, interdisciplinary, constantly contested and always developing. Where is a reader and thinker to start when even the theoretical boundaries are blurry?

I am learning to start where there is friction. One of the interesting boundary issues surrounding Buddhist fiction that presents as friction is “about vs. of.” These are not my chosen terms but those of the incredibly astute participants in my focus group fieldwork. Some of the participants noted that there seems to be a difference between stories that are about Buddhism verses stories that are “of” Buddhism. There are some stories that are clearly about Buddhism; they have Buddhist characters and these characters live their lives as Buddhists and/or the story has a Buddhist setting. There are other stories that are not about Buddhism per se but contain within them that which readers perceive as the dharma – these stories are “of” Buddhism. The best Buddhist fiction is, in my humble opinion, both about and of Buddhism, but the easiest to recognize and define are stories about Buddhism – stories that narrate a Buddhist world view.

A good example of the friction at the boundaries of fiction that is about Buddhism and fiction that is of Buddhism rests in the works of Charles Johnson. Dr. Johnson is Professor Emeritus, Pollock Professor of English at Washington University. He is a noted author of novels, short stories and essays who was awarded the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002. He is also an African American who self-identifies as a Buddhist. It is no surprise, then, that he wrote the forward to the first anthology of short works of Buddhist fiction entitled Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (2004). As an author and Buddhist, Johnson has penned many novels and short stories and essays, as well as the autobipgraphical work Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003). His works are both of and about Buddhism.

Of: Charles Johnson’s novels Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990), which won the 1990 National Book Award, are both works set in mid 19th century America. They are also both stories structured around Buddhist epistemology. The title of Oxherding Tale is a reference to the Zen painting-poems Ten Ox Herding Pictures or Ten Bulls which, along with slave narratives, is one of the literary tools used to tell the story. In Middle Passage, the protagonist Rutherford Calhoun undertakes a transformational journey that illustrates the Buddhist concept of interdependence. Neither of these novels is actually about Buddhism – they are stories about African Americans. A reader without knowledge of the Ten Bulls or interdependence (Sanskrit pratītyasamutpāda) may not see these Buddhist aspects in the structure of these novels, as there are no overt references to Buddhism in these works.

About: Charles Johnson’s short story “Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra” appears in the March 2012 issue of the Shambhala Sun periodical. It is a lovely story about a Japanese abbott who buys and restores an old run down temple using money he saved from translation work. The abbott, Toshiro Ogama, bought the temple so that he could be alone, but one day is faced with his first visitor. She is a young black American Buddhist named Cynthia Tucker. She is also a writer, and knows of Toshiro Ogama because he translated her work. Despite his attempts to keep her out of the way while spring cleaning, Ms. Tucker’s visit to the temple precipitates a breakthrough experience for Ogama. This lovely story is both about and of Buddhism, and you can read it here: “Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra”. You can also read Charles Johnson’s own thoughts and reflections about the short story in an interview he gave to E. Ethelbert Miller here: E-CHANNEL: KAMADHATU: A MODERN SUTRA .

So is all of Charles Johnson’s work Buddhist literature? Gary Storhoff and John Whalen-Bridge imply this in their edited volume The Emergence of American Buddhist Literature (2009). But to label all prose and poetry by Buddhists as Buddhist literature is akin to labeling all such works by Christians as Christian literature, which is neither true nor helpful to my academic challenge. I think that, for the time being, I will forge ahead with the idea that Buddhist fiction is contemporary story that has recognizable Buddhist elements (characters, plot, setting) and clearly narrates a Buddhist world view, unless someone would like to convince me otherwise.