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.
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