- Interview with Jan Willis
black women and spirituality, Buddhism, Buddhism and race, Jan Willis, women in Buddhism
Jan Willis is professor emerita of religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and visiting professor of religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She is author of The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation (1972), On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi (1979), and Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition (1995); and editor [End Page 127] of Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (1989).1 In addition, Willis has published numerous articles and essays on various topics in Buddhist studies, including Tibetan Buddhist meditation, hagiography, the role and authority of women in Buddhism, and the intersection of Buddhism and race. In her memoir, Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman's Spiritual Journey (2008), Willis recounts her experiences of growing up in the Jim Crow South, leaving home to attend Cornell University, her brief and instructive involvement in the Black Panther Party, and her chance to travel to Nepal where she would meet her beloved teacher, Tibetan Lama Thubten Yeshe.2
Jan's work as a Buddhist philosopher, translator, and author continues to shape the field of Buddhist studies and is deeply influential in bringing forth the voices and stories of African American Buddhists in the United States. Her contributions to ongoing scholarship and conversations about gender, racism, and white supremacy in this country are rooted in her experiences of being black, Baptist, and Buddhist and, as such, put a spotlight on the real and enduring legacy of slavery in this country, including its current manifestations in our academic and religious institutions. Jan's was an early voice in conversations about race and Buddhism in the United States, through pieces such as "Buddhism and Race: An African American Baptist-Buddhist Perspective," in Marianne Dresser's edited volume Buddhist Women on the Edge (1996) and "Diversity and Race: New Koans for American Buddhism," in Women's Buddhism, Buddhism's Women (2000), a collection edited by Ellison Banks Findlay.3 Since then, Jan has done a number of interviews on the subject, published both in the United States and overseas.
In addition to her own writing, Jan has received wide recognition for her contributions to the field of religious studies and the wider community. In 2000, she was named one of Time's "spiritual innovators for the new millennium."4 Her story and experience of religious hyphenation has been featured in texts that highlight uncommon religious narratives. For example, she is featured in William David Hart's text, Black Religion: Malcolm X, Julius Lester, and Jan Willis (2008), wherein Hart is arguing against Afro-centricity by giving examples of what he calls Afro-Eccentricity, or, "those figures who do not conform to standard expectations of what it means to be a black person and a religious [End Page 128] person."5 Jan is also highlighted in Stephanie Evans's Black Passports: Travel Memoirs as a Tool for Youth Empowerment (2014), which serves as a guidebook for young people to explore their own stories through the autobiographies of two hundred African Americans.6
No matter the entry point, Jan's life is an illuminating example of the richness that is brought to spiritual practices and religious traditions when women of color have a space and place to center their stories and voices. As she said to me during our conversation, "We have to include more of all of who we are." Jan is often asked to comment on being an African American and a Tibetan Buddhist. She admits the rarity of this combination but also says that "it hasn't seemed anomalous to me; it is, after all my life. It is me and it is what I do."7
I am someone who often uses "ands" and hyphens when speaking about who I am as well. I recently completed the master of divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School, where I studied gender-based violence, Buddhist ministry, and trauma...