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SHOULDER TO THE WHEEL An Interview with Charles Johnson JOHN WHALEN-BRIDGE Th i s i n t e r v i e w b y e-mail between February 2001 and July 2003 was conducted for this book to address Johnson’s thoughts concerning Buddhism , with special attention to his newest publication, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. WHALEN-BRIDGE: What has the response to Turning the Wheel been like? JOHNSON: Just the other day I did a two-and-a-half-hour reading and Q & A for 140 people who showed up at Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle (this, after I got back last Sunday from five days on the East Coast), and then I have to fly to Los Angeles to do two more bookstores. The turnout at these bookstores has been amazing—no literary types, just a capac300 This interview is previously unpublished. ity crowd (even at an all-black bookstore in a black mall in Maryland last Saturday) that is a cross section of humankind: white, black, Asian, young, old, Zen and Christian priests, long-time and new meditators. It’s been sangha time each time, so, though tired, I feel profoundly rewarded by the people I’ve met. They are so different from the people I’ve met on previous book tours. WHALEN-BRIDGE: I’ve lived in Asia for ten years and jaws drop whenever I tell people I’m a Buddhist. I find this tiresome and sometimes even a tad racist. Do you get this too? JOHNSON: I had an interesting experience recently. I did an interview for Evergreen Radio (taped) here in Seattle, and my interviewer was a wonderfully warm black man about my age. He just had to say, though, “People in the community are wondering how did a brother get over there with Buddhism?” And then he asked, “Why this book. And why now?” I’ve been musing on his question for a couple of days—why Turning theWheel now—and I know the answer: in this phase of my life, what I call Act Three, I finally had to declare myself someone devoted to the dharma. Six years ago I made the decision to direct my creative writing energies to the dharma after my Microsoftsponsored trip to Thailand (and my interview with the abbot in the town of Phrae)—no longer tucking the dharma into my fiction and keeping Buddhism tucked close to my vest, but addressing it directly in nonfiction prose. Truth to tell, Turning theWheel may have cost me a few old friends in the book world. Since receiving their copies, other writers (I’ll name no names), some black and some white academic and literary colleagues, haven’t said as much as “boo” to me about it in two months. I think the book may be alienating to them; I think they are, in fact, as deeply afraid of Buddhism as my old teacher Gardner once was. I think as well that their perception, ideas, or beliefs about me—who I am, what I think, what I stand for—have been roughed up a little. Or more than a little.And I think that’s good. It may lead, on their part, to a little more “epistemological humility ,” a hesitancy to judge too quickly, make assumptions—or Shoulder to the Wheel (2003) 301 it may just lead them to avoid me like the plague, which is OK, too. I’ll still love ’em. As one of my friends who did respond to the book said, with Turning theWheel what I’m doing is just saying, “This is where I stand. Period. Deal with it.” Some apparently have decided not to deal with it. And so that, I think, is the answer, in part, to the black gentleman’s question. WHALEN-BRIDGE: In Turning the Wheel you pursue connections between Buddhism and phenomenology. Given the similarity between Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of phenomenological practice and Dogen’s notion that we study the self to forget the self, one wonders what difference actually exists between the two systems of thought. Is it fair to say that phenomenology and Buddhism are but different pathways to the same place, for you? JOHNSON: Early Buddhism has, as so many have noted, a distinctly phenomenological “flavor.” Phenomenology, as a Western attempt to achieve a “presuppositionless philosophy of experience,” with its emphasis being on the method that arises from the epoché and the “phenomenological reduction” and its aim being...


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