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  • In the Company of Friends:Womanist Readings of Buddhist Poems
  • Melanie L. Harris


Thank you to the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies for this gracious invitation. I am glad to know your president, Dr. John Makransky, as a cherished colleague and friend, and our panel is very grateful to present some of our own work from the Buddhist Resources for Womanist Reflection Consultations to you. There are so many beautiful minds in this room who have contributed great models and methods for this kind of interreligious dialogue, and we are glad to join you in what Charles Hallisey calls “the activity of understanding.”1


I have the pleasure this morning of providing a frame for our panel conversation today and giving you some context. The Buddhist Resources for Womanist Reflection began in 2009 at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions.2 Through a generous grant, directed by Charles Hallisey and myself, we worked together to bring Womanist scholars with multiple disciplinary expertise and representing a number of different traditions together with Buddhist scholars. Together, Janet Gyatso Charles Hallisey, and Dennis Hirota guided us in an exploration into Buddhist texts. Reading particular stories from the Buddhist tradition, we as Womanist scholars deeply engaged each piece, asked questions we felt necessary for proper understanding, and then used our own Womanist hermeneutics to begin to engage the pieces using a Womanist lens. Finally, we shared dialogue with each other and with the Buddhist scholars present to consider how this resource might in fact expand the discourse of Womanist religious thought and, in turn, open up Buddhist studies.

This process of “reading in community” together is a practice that in itself is interreligious and deeply influenced by the havruta method of reading traditionally [End Page 3] found in Jewish places of learning. Using this method, one “reads with friends” in an attempt to learn from them how to see and understand in ways that would be impossible for oneself as an individual. This method of friendship is worth explicating for the purpose of our conversation today, and I will turn to this in a moment.

Our experience in 2009 was filled with such pleasure that we wanted to do it again. And, this time in Texas! Through the great support of colleagues and new friends we were able to host this meeting in 2011 at Texas Christian University. Here, we were joined by new friends in our reading community, including many of the Womanist scholars presenting today, Womanist friends in the audience, colleagues at TCU, and Womanist writer and mother of the term Alice Walker.

alice walker

The significance of Alice Walker’s presence with us cannot be overstated. For the first time in more than twenty years, Ms. Walker’s presence (not only in Texas, but a few years later at a panel featuring her work at the American Academy of Religion)3 was indeed a welcomed and much needed “coming home” marker moment for the academic study of religion and the Womanist community. While many of us here may be familiar with Alice Walker’s beautiful writings on Buddhist meditation as a tool of empowerment for peoples who have been marginalized or oppressed, it was precisely her move to be inclusive of Buddhist and other spiritual paths and practices that opened the doorway for Womanist interreligious dialogue but perhaps simultaneously caused her to be shunned from traditional Womanist circles. That is, in her 1995 essay given at Auburn Seminary in New York, titled “The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven Is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind,” Walker reveals her own development of a Womanist hermeneutic that is shaped by African cosmology, Buddhism, and Native American Earth spirituality.4 She sharply critiques the patriarchy within Christianity, while also opening the door to hybrid and fluid forms of spirituality. At that point in Womanist circles, many theologians were willing to engage Walker’s fiction work (The Color Purple) but rarely engaged Walker’s nonfiction work, wherein her own interreligious Womanist lens and experience can be found. In my observation, this project, Buddhist Resources for Womanist Reflection, the interreligious nature of our work...


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