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  • The Womanist-Buddhist Consultation as a Reading Community
  • Carolyn M. Jones Medine

In Breaking the Fall, the late Robert Detweiler (1932-2008) imagines what a reading community, "a contemporary version of the old storytelling cultures,"1 might look like. He suggests that in such a community, "The accent on community itself would offer a balance to our excessively privatizing tendencies; the communal interaction could counter our relentless drive to interpret . . . with attitudes of play and Gelassenheit (abandonment, chance, and relaxation); the writing and reading community especially as a liminal entity, could nurture a respect for the incomprehensibility of form and a reverence for mystery."2 This description offers an entry to the work of the Womanist-Buddhist Consultations. To reach a provisional understanding of the meaning of that work, I shall reflect on first what we mean when we say that we want to read something. Second, I turn to a conversation with Robert Detweiler, who was one of my mentors, as a way to address the form of reading that we do and the form of community that we make in the Womanist-Buddhist Consultations. Third, I want to draw on the thought of the consultations themselves, using Emmanuel Levinas's work on reading and ethics, to examine the capacity the consultations have to hold tensions creatively and to allow multiple meanings to be part of them. Finally, I want to address the goals for the consultations. I am thinking specifically of Melanie Harris's desire to see the consultations as generating practices that promote peace, compassion, and justice, and Charlie Hallisey's desire to generate a more complex reading of Buddhist texts in and of themselves.

The Womanist-Buddhist Consultations have met three times between 2009 and 2011. We met at Harvard Divinity School and at Texas Christian University for sessions of four days each, and for an evening at the University of Georgia between the two longer meetings. The Texas Christian meeting included some previous members from the Harvard meeting, and added new ones. The University of Georgia meeting consisted primarily of students who participated in the reading practice.

In the meeting at the University of Georgia, Charles Hallisey looked askance at me when I said that Buddhism offers an entry into peace and compassion; yet Melanie Harris, when she constructed the later session at Texas Christian University, deployed the terms "peace" and "justice" as descriptors for the work of the group. Hallisey's ironic glance occurred right before we read, at the University of Georgia, a text that contained magic and murder. His glance and the content of that text have prompted [End Page 47] me to think through Harris's claims and to see how our group achieves both a reading of Buddhism and an ethical practice that generates peace and points to justice.

The instructions that Hallisey gives for the reading process describe a practice of "being and reading together" as we encounter a variety of Buddhist texts.3 The group's guide is the bodhisattva Manjushri, who has overseen our work through an image gracing the wall at all our meetings. Manjushri has a sword to cut through obstacles, and holds a book, signifying wisdom. The practice of reading with friends, Hallisey told us, comes from Jewish tradition: we need a friend to help us overcome what we can and to begin to see what we cannot. The work involves three steps:

  1. 1. To read passages individually.

  2. 2. To read the same passages together in small groups.

  3. 3. To gather again as a large group and discuss what we have discovered.

The major goal of reading is to encounter levels of ourselves to which we ordinarily have no access, by examining a text that becomes "generous" to us. Reading together, Hallisey asserts, makes the generosity of the text visible to us.

This process of reading, I would argue, is different from what we usually do when we read and different from what we mean when we tell students to read. Patricia O'Connell Killen, an AAR Teaching Award winner, has delineated some of what we mean when we say to our students: "Read chapter 2 of 'X' and come to class prepared."4...


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