An intensely felt but highly personal account by an African-American academic of the journey she took from Christianity to Tibetan Buddhism—and back.
Raised in the 1950s in Docena, a small Alabama mining town, Willis attended segregated schools and was an outstanding student. While still in high school in Birmingham, she faced down Bull Connor’s attack dogs; later, at Cornell, she became involved in radical politics. Acutely aware of racial injustice and angry at white intimidation—the Klan once burned a cross outside the family home one evening while her father was working the graveyard shift in the mine—she had to decide, after graduating from Cornell in 1969, between joining the Black Panthers or studying Buddhism in Nepal. Although she felt it was her responsibility as a “thinking Black person” to join the radical group, her inner self rebelled and she went instead to Nepal (which she had visited the previous year while learning Sanskrit in India). In Nepal, studying Buddhism with a wise and perceptive Lama, she began to find herself at peace and better able to confront the stings of racism. When the Lama told here that living with pride and humility in equal proportions was very difficult, she understood at once that he had identified “one of the deepest issues confronting not only her, but all African Americans.” Back in the US she began teaching, got a Ph.D., and was granted tenure at Wesleyan (where she still teaches). Raised a Baptist, she has returned to her childhood faith and now calls herself a “Baptist-Buddhist.” Although she describes her parents with affection, the heart of her story is the account of her transforming encounter with Buddhism, which enabled her to overcome racism and practice the loving-kindness that Christianity demands.
A moving story that aims to reconcile the experiences of faith and racism—but remains too intensely subjective throughout to rise above the level of personal memoir.