- Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice by Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson, now an emeritus professor of English at the University of Washington, is an American Renaissance man. He is a graphic artist, a novelist and literary critic, a philosopher, a screenplay writer, and an essayist. He is a MacArthur fellow, and he won an American Book Award for his novel Middle Passage. Johnson’s work is deeply held together by his practice of Buddhism. He is a Soto Zen Buddhist. His first book of essays on this conjunction, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, was published in 2003. Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture and Spiritual Practice is his second collection of essays on Buddhism, African American and American culture, art, and politics.
The book is divided into three sections: essays, reviews and prefaces, and stories, written between 2004 and 2014. The reviews and prefaces are of others’ works but hold tantalizing connections to the full essays that precede them. The stories illustrate Johnson’s speculations on how a “student or practitioner of the Buddhadharma [can] write about nonconceptual insights that are ineffable” (p. 113). The stories take on that task and “dramatize” (p. 113) the dharma by taking the reader into the intimate lives of persons, such as a man, used to living in a quiet neighborhood, who finds himself bombarded by his neighbor’s music. All three sections build on Johnson’s argument that “the Buddhist experience is simply the human experience . . . found in the pedestrian, ordinary texture of our daily lives and doings” (p. 113).
The lived quotidian mystery, to use Kathleen Norris’s phrase, of Buddhism takes on powerful implications when race is part of the question. Johnson’s essay on Trayvon Martin (pp. 92–96) insightfully explores the positionality of black men in America and suggests Right Mindfulness as a skillful means for using our emotions, even anger, to undo the cycle of early death for black men. As a black American man, Johnson demonstrates how the practiced skillful means of the Buddhadharma can address the big questions of race in America but, more specifically, the matter of living everyday life. [End Page 219]
Like many African American Buddhists, Johnson sees a continuity between his Buddhist practice and the Civil Rights Movement. Along with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Buddha, one intellectual interlocutor in this work is Paul Tillich, particularly his essay “A Christian-Buddhist Conversation.” Johnson addresses the “something lacking” Tillich finds in Buddhism (p. 24): that the Buddhist may have identity but not community (p. 25). Johnson takes on Tillich’s criticism through Engaged Buddhism, which he sees aligned with the Civil Rights Movement and its practices and which necessitates action in community.
Johnson argues that King is “the most prominent moral philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century (p. 43). King’s questions go beyond race to the human: What does it mean to be civilized? How do we confront evil without creating more evil? How do we acknowledge “dependent origination” and create the beloved community? (pp. 44–45).
King’s practice of nonviolence, Johnson argues, made him the face of the struggle against segregation. Nonviolence is not just a philosophy for Johnson but, combined with Buddhist practice, a daily Way (p. 49) that leads to ahimsa, non-injury of all that exists. (He reminds us that King’s grandfather, Adam Daniel Williams, “was known to preach the ‘funerals of snakes, cats, dogs, horses, or anything that moved’” (p. 45). Combining nonviolence with agape, unconditional love that is teleological in its recognition that everyone can (and does) change, King recognized that “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated” (p. 51). Interbeing, therefore, is the baseline of King’s beloved community, which, for Johnson, is the sangha, providing a refuge but also a point of common connection from which to act.
The “We-relation” (p. 51) is key for Johnson’s understanding...