bell hooks is a seeker, a feminist, a social critic, and a prolific writer. Her books include“Ain’t I a Woman?”: Black Women and Feminism; Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black; Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with Cornel West); and, most recently Black Looks all from Southend Press.
She was born Gloria Watkins forty years ago in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and was educated at Stanford and Yale. Currently she teaches English and Women’s Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by editor Helen Tworkov.
What was your first exposure to Buddhism? When I was eighteen I was an undergraduate at Stanford and a poet and I met Gary Snyder. I already knew that he was involved with Zen from his work, and he invited me to the Ring of Bones Zendo for a May Day celebration. There were two or three American Buddhist nuns there and they made a tremendous impression. Since that time I’ve been engaged in the contemplative traditions of Buddhism in one way or another.
And that excludes Nichiren Shoshu? Which is the only Buddhist organization in America with a substantial black membership? Yes, Tina Turner Buddhism. Get-what-you-want Buddhism—that is the image of Buddhism most familiar to masses of black people. The kind of Buddhism that engages me most is about how you’re going to live simply, not about how you’re going to get all sorts of things.
How do you understand the absence of black membership in contemplative Buddhist traditions? Many teachers speak of needing to have something in the first place before you can give it up. This has communicated that the teachings were for the materially privileged and those preoccupied with their own comforts. When other black people come to my house they say, “Giving up what comforts?” For black people, the literature of Buddhism has been exclusive. It allowed a lot of people to say, “That has nothing to do with me.” Many people see the contemplative traditions—specifically those from Asia—as being for privileged white people.
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