- Wombu:An Intellectual Exercise in Womanist and Buddhist Reading
Reading at the textual intersection of Womanist and Buddhist thought has been much like Frederick Douglass’s attempts at deciphering the metaphysical world of Sandy Jenkins, an enslaved African whose religious practices resided in a non-Christian assemblage of rootwork, conjuring, and charm production. Seeking to make sense of this Africana esoteric world, Douglass remarked in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) that Sandy “was not only a religious man, . . . he professed to believe in a system for which I have no name.”1 Within my own scholarly nexus of Africana and Womanist studies, I, like Douglass, have over the course of six years grasped for a name for a system of reading the synergistic correspondences in Buddhist and Womanist texts “for which I have no name.”
In this nameless intersectionality between Womanist and Buddhist thought, there exists something powerful and pregnant residing in the spaces of the undefined, the indeterminate. Yet, names inscribe and congeal. Therefore, the name that emerged in my reflections to designate the intellectual and textual spatiality we collectively created in our Womanist and Buddhist scholarly roundtable is Wombu—invoking the womb and an incubating space, a space of fertility and creativity, a generative intellectual and textual space for birthing new interpretations. This new vernacular of Wombu placed us on an innovative path to cross-textual reading, chronological collisions, and global exchange. We wrestled with the challenges of language and translation, textual integrity, and interpretive accuracy. Ultimately, the goal of our scholarly collaborations was to find a place where Womanist and Buddhist thought could mutually coexist and host the proliferation of multiple new meanings.
Alice Walker, from whom Womanist definitions derive, stated in her dharma talk at the African American Buddhist Conference/Retreat that “the study and practice of Buddhism” is good and healing medicine for African Americans.2 For Walker, Buddhism is part of the healing work for ancestors, and she concludes: “Buddhist practice, sent by ancestors we didn’t even know we had, has arrived, as all things do, just in time.”
Subha is among the first female ancestors preserved in Buddhist elegy who arrived “just in time.” She is a Womanist ancestor “we didn’t even know we had.” The [End Page 43] praise poem to Subha taken from the corpus of poems with twenty verses in Charles Hallisay’s Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women reads as follows:
Spoken by the Buddha to Praise SubhaLook at Subha, the metalworker’s daughter,She has become calm,She meditates at the foot of a tree.Today is the eighth day since she went forth, faithful,She is beautiful because she has realized dhamma,Taught by Uppalavanna, she knowsThe three things that most don’t knowAnd she has left death behind.Subha is a slave who has been freed, she now has no debt,A nun who knows how to know well,Free from everything that held her back,She has done what needs to be doneAnd is free from the depravities that ooze out from within.Those who compiled the Scriptures saidSakka, the lords of beings, used his powersTo come with a host of gods,And he worshiped Subha, the metalworker’s daughter.3
Similar to that of African American Womanists, the story of Subha and that of the Buddhist Feminine “do not seem to have been included in the canons of great poetry,” according to Hallisay.4 The literary corpora of Womanists and Buddhist Nuns have had to fight their way from the margins of masculine canons into visibility. For African American Womanists in the United States, the Black Feminine elegy begins not in praise by the great Buddha as Subha’s, but in chattel enslavement with the work of West African–born poet Phillis Wheatley and the publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773.5 Like Wheatley, “Subha is a slave who has been freed.”6 We also find that the poetry of both Subha, the Buddhist nun, and Wheatley, the evangelical Christian, is deeply connected to their own personal piety. However, as the enslaved Black feminine, Wheatley...