book review: dreaming me and the wisdom of forgiveness
There is a tradition in Tibetan Buddhist literature of the nam-thar, the sacred life story of a Buddhist saint. They are inspirational in nature, narrating how an ordinary human can accomplish great things. While nam-thar might not be an accurate description of [w:Jan Willis]'s Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey or Victor Chan’s The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys, it’s a model to keep in mind while reading them. Both Willis’s memoir and Chan’s account of the time he spent with [w:His Holiness the Dalai Lama] can serve as inspiration to all of us as we try to be good people on this troubled planet.
Willis's Dreaming Me is a fascinating memoir, tracing Willis path from her childhood home in a poor segregated Alabama community to her life as a professor of religion at Wesleyan University. Along the way she was one of the pioneering African American students at Cornell University. She studied Buddhist philosophy in India and Nepal and was an early and much loved student of Tibetan [w:Lama Thubten Yeshe]. She got her PhD at Columbia, taught at UC Santa Cruz in the 70s, and eventually settled at Wesleyan.
Willis's story is inspiring not just because she's a black women who transcends far beyond what the Jim Crow South told her was possible, but because of how fearlessly she looks at herself and works to heal the trauma of sexism, racism and slavery that she carries within her.
A pivotal decision for Wallis came in 1969. She had finished her BA in philosophy at Cornell and had to decide whether to go work with the Black Panthers or return to Nepal and continue her studies. She writes:
True, I had learned to shoot a piece. I had even helped deliver guns to the Straight [at Cornell] when I had to. But I had also marched, nonviolently amid violence, in Birmingham with King. And I had wanted to talk with those Klan folk who'd burned a cross in front of our house. "To thine own self be true," the saying goes, and my sister, San, had always said, "Trust your first mind." I decided not to meet with the Panthers. ... Only a few months passed before I saw the article about [Fred] Hampton's death. My heart was saddened to think of him, cut down in his shining prime. But I had made the right decision.
It is amazing what the generation one older than mine experienced when they hit the hippy trail and traveled through Afghanistan, India, and Nepal in the 60s and 70s. Like Willis, writer Victor Chan's life also changed when he met Tibetans living in exile in India and Nepal. Through a traveling companion, he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in 1972. Chan tells the story in his book with the Dalai Lama, The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys.
Chan's Chinese background, like Willis's African American experience, is integral to the story. He spent the first 20 years of his life living in Hong Kong, then a British Colony. The first thing he could think of to ask His Holiness when he met him was whether he hated the Chinese.
His reply was immediate and succinct. And it was in English.
"No," he said.
His eyes held mine. His expression was solemn. There was no hint of gaiety left. I looked away and stared at the carpeted floor.
After an interminable silence he spoke quietly and slowly to Tenzin Geyche in Tibetan.
The private secretary translated: "Hi Holiness does not have any bad feeling towards the Chinese. We Tibetans have suffered greatly because of the Chinese invasion. And as we speak, the Chinese are systematically, stone by stone, dismantling the great monasteries of Tibet. Nearly every Tibetan family in Dharmasala had a sad story to tell; most have lost at least one family member due to Chinese atrocities. But His Holiness said his quarrel is with the Chinese Communist Party. Not with ordinary Chinese. He still considers the Chinese his brothers and sisters. His Holiness doesn't hate the Chinese. As a matter of fact, he forgives them with no reservations."
Chan "marveled" at His Holiness's response to his question. He writes that he was so moved by his experience with the Tibetans he encountered in Dharamsala that for the following decade, "things Tibetan loomed large in my mind." In the 80s, Chan spent four years researching a guidebook on pilgrimage sites in Tibet. Then years later, he asked the Dalai Lama if he could write a book on him. His Holiness agreed to the project. Chan traveled with His Holiness and visited him at home in Dharamsala. Chan's book, based on the many interviews, shows the beauty of a man so deeply committed to the well being of others and the happiness that is available to anyone who makes a similar commitment.
Central to both books is the role of forgiveness and letting go in finding internal peace. While researching her family genealogy, an older and wiser Willis is still flailed by the racism she encounters. At a courthouse in Linden, Alabama, she attempts to silence a local white historian's interest in her research.
I grabbed a volume from "Miscellaneous Records," set it down in front of her, turned to a specific page, and pointing to a record of sale, said to her, "You see this man, Adam? Adam was my great-great-grandfather. He was sold one day, away from his family—just like that!—to this man, David Compton."
"Um-hum," she responded. Then, looking right at me, she said with a smile and with pride in her voice, "Well now, David Compton was my great-great-grandfather!" With that remark, I was almost completely undone. This woman was evil, and you could see it in her eyes.
Willis could not get over the dread and anger brought on by the experience. Fortunately, she writes, not long after she saw an old friend, Lama Pema, who instructed her to remember that emotions are empty and to just let them go.
"You should think of this lady like spit." Not sure I heard him correctly, l asked, "Like spit?"
"Yes, like spit!" The he motioned with his mouth in imitation of spitting. "If someone spits, you know, on the ground, it would be silly for that person to stand there and contemplate that spit, or to wish to suck the spit back into his mouth. You just spit, and you go on. So, think of the meeting with this lady and the bad emotions that came out as spit. Spit it out, and keep going!"
Willis's book testifies to a path that is not easy, but one that is ultimately liberating. As she comes to terms with herself through the guidance of her teachers and through the work she puts into her practice, she sees the lioness in herself emerge—the powerful, beautiful, compassion, intelligent woman that she is.
In the end, the most profound lessons of life are the simplest, and I try to remind my students of these: We are all human beings. We all wish to have happiness and to avoid suffering. Take the time to imagine yourself in another's shoes. Count your blessings. Try as much as possible to practice loving-kindness. At the very least, try to avoid harming others.
Every now and then, a lion must roar. It is part of her nature. If my life's story is of some benefit to others, that will be a fine roar.
I really enjoyed reading both of these books: Chan’s for the behind-the-scenes view of His Holiness and Willis’s for her insights into American racism and what Buddhism has to offer for healing ourselves. I’m glad to be able to benefit from the wisdom of both writers and of their teachers, and I hope others will, too.