Willis, 52, is an African-American professor of Buddhism at Wesleyan University. At her home in Middletown, Conn., she points to a snapshot of the 1981 encounter, noting that only after a decade of meditation was she able to examine her blackness. She adds, "I became able to deal with the deep wounds of race because of Buddhist practice."
The wounds were many for a woman who grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and '60s; who as a child was warned not to roll down the car windows lest Ku Klux Klan members throw acid in her face; who as a teen watched men and women and children in satin robes burn a cross on her lawn; and who as a college student joined an armed protest to demand a black-studies program at Cornell University. She felt she had two choices after graduation: become a Black Panther or return to Nepal (where she had spent part of her junior year) to study at a Tibetan monastery.
She fled the turbulence of the late '60s in search of inner and outer peace. The only woman among 60 monks, she learned the chants, devotional rituals and what she considers to be the essence of Tibetan Buddhism: the practice of visualization, or imagining yourself a Buddha to become one. "Buddhism is a come-and-see model," she says. "Meditation is the path. You don't have to accept dogma. You have to spend time on the cushion." Her time on the cushion has yielded the upcoming memoir Dreaming Me: An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey.
Willis hopes to popularize the personal. In the U.S., she contends, Buddhism remains a religion of white elites. The few practicing African Americans tend to belong to Soka Gakkai International, a school of the religion that emphasizes simple chanting, usually for prosperity. Willis prefers a more rigorous dharma and is developing meditations for Buddhist centers that focus on race. Her teachings have not yet reached the masses, but, as she is quick to point out, "I'm not a proselytizer." She is, however, a philosopher with a bold agenda. "People tell you for centuries that you're just a cattle, just a beast of burden," she says of slavery's legacy. "The consequences of that remain with us and need potent, powerful medicine." Her prescription: kneel on the cushion and envision your self transformed.
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