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  • The Practice of Double Belonging and Afro-Buddhist Identity in Jan Willis's Dreaming Me
  • Carolyn Medine

Elizabeth Lesser, founder of the Omega Institute, which is a center for the study of health, psychology, and the practice of religions, writes that she knew the moment she had to write a book. She was at dinner with Babatunde Olatunji, the West African drummer, Beat icon Allen Ginsberg was talking to a Tibetan lama, and Floyd Patterson was describing his workshop, "The Tao of Boxing" to a tai chi master. Religious Studies scholar Huston Smith and John Mohawk, teacher, activist, and activist for indigenous farmers, also sat at the table. Rounding out the group was Sweet Honey in the Rock, the African American activist–spiritual a cappella group. Lesser writes:

Catching bits and pieces of conversations, I turned to Baba Olatunji and asked, "So, what do you make of all this—all these traditions meeting and merging?" Baba leaned back in his chair and surveyed the scene. Then, waving his fork at the extraordinary cast of characters seated around us, he announced, "This is a new kind of spirituality. It's American, and one day it will be the world."1

Lesser called her book The New American Spirituality, and in it, she explores the democratic, individual, and diverse forms of religious practice that, she argues, form a new "American tradition."2

Jan Willis, author of Dreaming Me,3 has been recognized as being in the forefront of this new American tradition. She was named one of six "spiritual innovators" for the new millennium by Time Magazine in 2000, and she is in great demand as a speaker.4 She is a highly regarded Buddhist studies scholar, author of, most recently, Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra (2020).5 She, in this autobiography, calls herself a Baptist-Buddhist:

I call myself a "Baptist-Buddhist" not to be cute or witty. I call myself a Baptist-Buddhist because it is an honest description of who I feel I am.


In the second publication of Dreaming Me, Willis changed the subtitle. The first publication "From Baptist to Buddhist" suggests that Willis leaves behind the Baptist pillar of her identity. The second "Black, Baptist, and Buddhist" suggests a more complex [End Page 449] identity, one that, as William David Hart puts it, shows us the tension between "'roots' and 'routes,'"6 and it is this that I will explore here. There are many theoretical frames that help us to address Willis's construction of identity. I will suggest hybridity and intersectionality as useful frames. I then will turn to Willis's two conversions, the experiences that led her to her religious identity. Willis calls on her journey, on her own personal experience of "a Buddha" and "a Christ" to claim her identity. I want to focus here on Willis's double conversion to explore that identity, to look at an integrating moment in her visit to her father's church, and then, to return to what I take to be her challenge to us in calling herself a Baptist-Buddhist.

hybrids, intersections, and polyphony

Jan Willis holds together multiple dimensions of identity in her autobiography. Willis's autobiography introduces a kind of practice. She is the guru—the witness (19/20)—who, courageously, puts before us the anger, pain, and fear that she experienced and, thereby, helps us to confront our own and, perhaps, integrate them into ourselves. Doing so, we may be able to bring forward our "secret selves," that self that lies beneath the split self of the double consciousness—as Willis does, and find a way to practice that honors it and heals the fracture. Willis, in calling herself a Baptist-Buddhist, suggests that we carry within us multiple identities. How are we to understand that claim?

Edward Said, in an interview called, "Criticism, Culture, and Performance," reminded us that identity is not a single construction. We all carry a multiplicity of identity dimensions, Said suggests, playing off Bakhtin, orchestrate within us "a polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without … the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together."7 Erik Davis, technology writer, discusses music...


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