Charles Johnson is not the type of person one places a label on. His work crosses many borders and boundaries: he is a philosopher, novelist, essayist, and cartoonist. He won the National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage, which follows the adventures of a newly freed slave. But what I admire about Johnson, in addition to his intellectual rigor, are his compassion and his moral compass, which is steered by a belief in Buddhist teachings and practice.

For the last several years Charles and I have been in weekly contact via email. Our topics of conversation range from politics and culture to family matters. An outgrowth of this correspondence has resulted in two books, The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson and The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling. In this interview, published on the occasion of Tricycle’s 25th anniversary, Johnson returns to the core of Buddhist teachings in order to provide clear water for our collective thirst. His opinions embrace the gravity of deep thinking and emanate from the heart and mind.

There is nothing new one can say about issues of race in America. What is new is how Buddhists, working daily, can take the lead in expressing the desire for true brotherhood. I asked Charles Johnson questions a person in a crowd might be thinking about. His answers illuminate the road ahead.

E. Ethelbert Miller 

You make a number of references in Taming the Ox, your most recent book of essays, to Martin Luther King’s vision of a healed society, his “beloved community.” Is the beloved community just another dream? How do the oppressed practice mindfulness when they often lack control over their own bodies and minds? The beloved community, which in one of my articles I called a “sangha by another name,” is one of the social goals that we work daily to achieve. It involves the bodhisattva vow to help other sentient beings achieve awakening and freedom from suffering. If we are lay Buddhists, we start with those closest to us, our families. Buddhist practices, which include mindfulness, are the perfect antidote for anyone so unfortunate that he or she feels they lack control over their own minds and bodies. Regardless of our circumstances, if we are Buddhist practitioners, we can have control over how we react to our thoughts and feelings—the once unruly “monkey mind,” described so beautifully by the Indian monk Vivekananda in Raja-Yoga, can be tamed and made our servant.

Has popular culture diluted the true teachings of Buddhism? If so, is it necessarily a bad thing? Malcolm X once quipped that he liked his coffee black. Are we taking the risk today of adding too much milk and sugar to Buddhism?Your poet’s metaphors of milk and sugar are interesting. Let me add a “dash of lemon” by saying that at the heart of the Buddhist vision we find the unflinching awareness of impermanence, which includes our own impermanence—or, to put it bluntly, our deaths. What I call the fuzzy bunny approach to Buddhism in American pop culture can be easily corrected when we meditate on the fact that none of us have very long to be here—at best maybe 90 years on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old. That’s just the blink of an eye. Or, as the Diamond Sutra says in its last verse, everything is “a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”

According to legend, Buddhism—awakening to dharma—begins when young Shakyamuni leaves the home where he has been shielded from the experience of suffering and sees four signs: an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and a wandering holy man. He understands immediately that one day he will become sick, and old, and a corpse. This is something of an “Ozymandias” moment. What Plato once said about Western philosophy, we realize, is also true of Buddhism—it is a preparation for death. Heidegger understood this in Being and Time when he states that our human condition is that of being-toward-death. It is the certainty of our deaths that imbues every moment of our lives with meaning, helps us to live authentically—and makes us see, as young Shakyamuni saw, that we have no time to waste on fleeting hedonistic pursuits, that we must seek liberation here and now in this life and should practice like a person whose hair is on fire. In Buddhist traditions it is a blessing to attain a human birth, for it is only as humans—not hungry ghosts or animals or beings trapped in other realms—that we can hear and follow the teachings.

One of the first deaths we experience—or let go of—on the path is that of the illusory self. We also die to selfish desire. We sometimes meditate on how flesh or the body—all bodies, even beautiful bodies—will become a stinking corpse, its elements breaking down and returning to the earth from which it arose. Fuzzy bunny Buddhism avoids too much talk about our mortality and finitude, perhaps because initially Westerners put the bad rap on Buddhism that it was a “life-denying” philosophy. But the dharma is really life-affirming. It is an acknowledgment of the beauty to be found in the impermanence of this universe and in the perfection of the present moment. It is the beauty in nonattachment to phantoms and the joy that comes when we no longer cling. It is a beauty that emerges only when we are free,  and when we can see things clearly—especially the moment-by-moment operation of our own minds that delivers a world to us. I think if we all could manage to pause for just a moment and think about how our lives are so brief, and how our deaths can come at any moment, then we would see how sad, petty, and short-lived are our worldly desires, as well as our conflicts with others, both personal and social. I hope that explanation wasn’t too much lemon in your metaphorical coffee.

“What saves me from despair about this very human situation? It is simply the fact that while I am not blind to damage caused by the lived illusion of race, neither am I bound by it. And I know others need not be bound by it, either.”

How important is it to have a teacher when learning about Buddhism? Is the race of the teacher ever a factor?  Teachers are important because they explain things students cannot understand on their own. Some people damaged by painful experiences need a teacher the way they need a loving father or mother—the way Jan Willis says she needed Lama Yeshe. Some others don’t need a teacher and are called pratyeka-buddhas, or “solitary awakened ones,” who have attained enlightenment on their own, especially during eras when no Buddha was available to turn the wheel of dharma.

When I was in Thailand in 1997, I interviewed a wise abbot who told me that some people will hear the dharma and understand it in seven days. Others may take seven months. And still others may be struggling to grasp the teachings after seven years. In other words, we all come to the dharma from different backgrounds, with different levels of understanding, different needs, and very often after experiencing different forms of suffering. We shouldn’t forget that old cliché that when the time is right the guru appears. At certain stages in our development, some of us need a guru or spiritual guide. Others do not. We should never idealize or romanticize our teachers, for it is rarely the case (if ever) that a teacher can meet all of a student’s expectations. Believe me, I know this after 33 years of being a college professor.

In the case of black Americans, so much of our social and even psychological suffering can be traced to the historical damage caused by slavery, by legal racial segregation, and to the ways in which this very white, violent, dualistic, materialistic, Eurocentric and racially provincial society demonizes black people and presents WASPs as the universal standard for humankind. When we have a chance to travel and get outside this little Western cultural and racial fishbowl, we see a different world: a planet where whites make up only between 17 and 30 percent of the population while people of color account for between 70 and 83 percent. Travel breaks the spell of whiteness this society relentlessly forces upon everyone. I’ve said all that to simply say, yes, because we are historically conditioned beings, a black American might feel most comfortable with a black (and female) teacher like angel Kyodo Williams or a black male teacher like Lama Rangdrol. For example, I know black women who have told me they don’t feel “safe” meditating with white practitioners because in meditation practices there are painful ways they must become racially vulnerable, confronting hurts and wounds caused by the white world that a white teacher and other students might not be able to identify with or even understand as thoroughly as a black teacher and other black practitioners would. (My 34-year-old daughter sits in meditation with a group of black women with whom she feels comfortable sharing that experience.) And then, of course, there’s Jan Willis, who had a wonderful relationship with Lama Yeshe, which she describes in her memoir, Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. Like everything else in the buddhadharma—the sutras, the vinaya, four noble truths, eightfold path, the precepts—the teacher is a tool (a valuable one) for enabling us to achieve awakening and liberation even from our momentary dependence on teachers.

It seems every year there is a new book or film about race. Are we stuck in quicksand, or have we overlooked the terrain we need to stand on? What Buddhist principles and texts serve as your “philosophical rope” and prevent you from falling into despair when it comes to race relations in the United States? For most of my life, since my teens when I first practiced meditation, I’ve been aware that what we call “race” is, like our notions of the self, only a social construct and a lived illusion based on ignorance. The buddha-dharma is optimistic, because it says we all eventually will free ourselves from ignorance. And that liberation is very much within our creative control every minute of every day—your life is a work in progress, like a canvas on which your actions and deeds can paint each day a portrait of the good, the true, and the beautiful. No one can stand in our way or prevent us from doing that.

That said, I have to add that I’m not naive about how intractable racism and other forms of bigotry are. Because most people live in samsara, the realm of ignorance and delusion, they will experience the world in terms of their fragile ego. Now, the ego wants to maintain its existence. It identifies with the physical body, with its sense of race and gender, and with its endless desires. Furthermore, the ego is always measuring itself against others, because such measuring is how it survives and avoids what it perceives to be dangerous or a threat to its continuation. It is forever wondering if it is inferior, equal, or superior to others. Always wondering, “Is mine bigger than yours?” Obviously, it prefers to feel bigger, superior to, and better than others—smarter, more beautiful, wealthier, more gifted, more ethical, and so on. Something the ego especially dislikes is feeling itself to be in an inferior or subordinate position to—and here I’ll use a troublesome black phrase we hear too often these days—“someone who doesn’t look like you.”

Such an ego—or monkey mind—is the root and fruit of racism. It is enormously difficult for most people to overcome, regardless of whether they are white or black, Hutu or Tutsi, Muslim or Christian, male or female, because the ego and its errors reside right at the center of the I and what we call personal identity. What saves me from despair about this very human situation? It is simply the fact that while I am not blind to damage caused by the lived illusion of race, neither am I bound by it. And I know that others need not be bound by it, either.

In certain parts of the world even Buddhists have turned to violence. Why is this? How can Buddhists sleep at night after harming another human being? I can’t speak for any other follower of the dharma, but I will say that the sangha is a collection of human beings situated in a very imperfect social world and in history. Human beings are flawed, frequently imperfect in their spiritual practice, and so they can slip into error or do things that violate their vows and ideals. The historical record overflows, sadly, with stories of spiritual teachers and practitioners who fell short of their ideals. I suspect we will always see these lapses in moral behavior.

I know you have an interest in astronomy. I recall one religious leader claiming that even if there is life on other planets, there is still only one Jesus. What does a Buddhist think about when he or she looks at the stars? How do you explain the night sky to your grandson? I would tell my grandson, and anyone, that we literally live in the midst of a great mystery. And we are mysteries ourselves, at least to each other. Think about it. Physicists tells us that 27 percent of this 13.8 billion-year-old universe consists of dark matter, and 68 percent is dark energy. That means the cosmos that we can measure and observe—what we can experience—is only 5 percent of what’s out there. So I am always filled—and I want my grandson to be filled—with a sense of mystery and wonder regarding his life and the lives of others. I want him to understand that the best position for him to take in regard to objects and others and himself is that of epistemological humility and egoless listening. And I want him to find the kind of joy in every moment of his life, even the painful moments, that the Chinese poet P’ang-yun captures in these famous lines:

How wonderful, how marvelous!!
I fetch wood, I carry water!

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.