- Practice in Buddhist-Womanist Thought
In “This Was Not an Area of Large Plantations” (2002), Alice Walker writes: “This is not a time to live without a practice . . . Whether we reach this inner state of recognized divinity through prayer, meditation, dancing, swimming, walking, feeding the hungry or enriching the impoverished is immaterial. We will be doubly bereft without some form of practice that connects us, in a caring way, to what begins to feel like a dissolving world” (p. 109).
Walker, if we read on the surface, seems to be asking us, as Malcolm X put it, to integrate with a sinking ship,1 but, as a theris (a senior one)2 her purposes are more complex than that. Walker is pointing us to the importance of practice for survival in the midst of violence and oppression, but also for going beyond survival to healing by recognizing our own Buddha-nature and that of our ancestors, in a kind of—to use Toni Morrison’s term—ritual “rememory” of the past that opens up possibilities of healing and of a future.3 To think about Alice Walker and practice’s importance for black people, I, first, want to use Karla F. C. Holloway’s Passed On to unpack the opening story of Walker’s essay, the death of George Slaughter. Second, I will discuss practice and Walker’s turning to Buddhist practice through the work of Pema Chodron to examine Walker’s essay, as well as to two of her other works, the poems in Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and her memoir, Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel, and then discuss the “senior women” in Charles Hallisey’s Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women to understand why practice, alone and in community, is necessary for health and healing, both Womanist and Buddhist concerns.4 Finally, I want to speak about poetry and/ as practice.
“the only thing i have to do is be black and die”
Walker’s essay begins with the memory a horrific murder, that of the tragically and “deadly” accurately named George Slaughter, who “didn’t keep his place” and was shot by a mob that included his father.5 Walker was reading this story as she waited to do jury duty, and when she walked into the courtroom, she was confronted with a [End Page 17] living example of what she had just read: three “malnourished youths, barely out of their teens,” facing either social death, life without parole, or actual death, the death penalty.6 Walker reminds us that African Americans and other people of color have been under constant and unending siege, to the point that they “are being removed from the planet.”7 In Passed On, Karla F. C. Holloway confirms that being black and dying are consonant in horrible ways. “Black folk,” she writes, “died in mournful collectives and in disconcerting circumstances. We died in riots and rebellions, as victims of lynching, from executions, murders, police violence, suicides and untreated or under-treated diseases. In such deaths, being black selected the victim into a macabre fraternity . . . [C]ollectively, the story of how we died shaped a tragic community narrative.”8 Black death in America, as Walker puts it, was and is “too insignificant for the majority to see”9: more bare life—life that can be killed but not sacrificed—than valued and grievable life.10 How can practice be a viable intervention in such situations?
The Buddha realized that “life is suffering,” but also that we can do something about it, other than seeking a “‘fix’” that ultimately consumes us, we can do something that leads to joy.11 We might link Walker’s practice to her poetry writing. Poetry and practice confront and make grievable the dishonored body: George Slaughter’s (white) father was part of the mob, and the horse, which was too fine, drank his blood.12 Walker’s sense of practice, therefore, involves a kind of “rememory,” to quote Toni Morrison, to recover and grieve this life but also to realize it as ancestor. Indigenous people, people of color, and others care for...