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  • Buddhist Meditation for the Recovery of the Womanist Self, or Sitting on the Mat Self-Love Realized
  • Melanie L. Harris

In this essay, I will argue that Womanist-Buddhist dialogue is beneficial not only for advancing theory in our respective disciplines, but for the practice of social justice. In the dialogues for which we gathered, we followed a process of learning inspired by chavruse, the method of Torah and Talmudic study found in yeshivas, in which one reads a text with friends, in order to see and understand in ways that would be impossible for individuals alone. The mutually constitutive project of Womanist-Buddhist engagement with Buddhist texts has helped to shift the boundaries within Womanist religious thought and Buddhist studies. We are grateful for the trust—essential to any healthy dialogue—embodied in our work together, and for the deep humility and honor that has been shown by all who are engaged in the process.

The Buddhist "self": A Womanist Perspective

In a conversation with a friend recently, I was encouraged to hold on to the humanness that suffering teaches by being fully present with a broken heart. My grief was offered tea, and I was invited to join in the depths of suffering for a "spell," sharing stories of strength and longing, through a process of healing meditation. I hear this invitation echoed in essays by Alice Walker in We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, as well as in the work of Jan Willis. Both scholars are committed to telling the truths in women's stories and uncovering the "true self" through spiritual means. Here, I present some reflections on how engaging Buddhist texts as a Womanist scholar opens up a new perspective on the Womanist theme of self-love and how this can shift our understanding of the Buddhist self.

The "Buddhist self," you say? Although Buddhism insists there is "no self"? Yes! The concept of no-self in Buddhism is often equated with "dissolving" the self; I would argue that Buddhist contemplative practices can be seen and experienced as form of healthy self-love and self-care, necessary to sustain activists' work for compassionate justice. According to Walker's definition, a Womanist "Loves herself. Regardless."1 To consider Buddhist meditation as a strategy of self-love and social justice [End Page 67] helps us to see why so many African American women are turning toward Buddhism as a religious orientation.

Buddhist meditation invites one to overcome oppression and transform the self and the community, by raising consciousness through a true turning or shifting of mind, in a manner that produces clarity of thought and inner peace. As the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön has observed, most people who are not raised Buddhist come to Buddhism because they are suffering and trying desperately to get out of dukkha. However, when confronted with the First Noble Truth that suffering is just part of life, many people turn away from meditation, pack up their sitting mats, and return home to habitual patterns.

Sitting still on the mat for a long time, for any length of time really, seems to most beginners like an otherworldly commitment—unless of course, one has reason to stay, reason to change. As Willis has observed, most people of African descent do have reason.2 She says Buddhism offers at least three major gifts to African Americans—I would add Womanists here—and to all people of color who have experienced historical traumas such as slavery, exploitation, and cultural genocide. They are: (1) confidence in our humanity—a special gift to a people who have endured four hundred years of slavery and oppression, in which the very essence of our humanity was consistently ravaged; (2) a way of being in the world that emphasizes self-love and inner and communal wholeness; and (3) a method for dealing with the frustrations, disappointments, and anger left behind by multilayered oppressions. Rather than negating the self, and everyone else around, by succumbing to practices of patriarchy, or by falling into the traps of internalized oppression, or by pulling out our hair after upsetting meetings, or by indulging...


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pp. 67-72
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