bell hooks (1952–2021) was a seeker, 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 All About Love. She was born Gloria Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and was educated at Stanford. In this brief excerpt of an interview with Tricycle’s founder, Helen Tworkov, from our Fall 1992 issue, hooks discusses her introduction to Buddhism and attraction to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022).
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.
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.
We find references and quotes from Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh throughout your work. Is part of your attraction to him his integration of contemplation and political activism? Yes. Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism isn’t framed from a location of privilege, but from a location of deep anguish—the anguish of a people being destroyed in a genocidal war.
In addition to Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist references in your work extend to those books that fall into the category you defined as exclusive. How did you get past that? If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with blackness; I wouldn’t start with gender; I wouldn’t start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I’m a seeker on the path. I think of feminism, and I think of anti-racist struggles as part of it. But where I stand spiritually is, steadfastly, on a path about love.
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