Review of Charles Johnson’s Taming the Ox

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I am an admirer of the African American Buddhist writer cartoonist extraordinaire Charles Johnson. Johnson is the recipient of several awards including the coveted MacArthur “Genius Award” as well as Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. I was  introduced to his work through his fiction; initially, Middle Passage (1998), which won The National Book Award for Fiction in 1990. I then moved on to his short stories, one of which I have written about*. Finally, I ventured into his essay collections: one was Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003). Another was Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1990).

This all happened while I was a stressed out graduate student and single parent of a beautiful precocious preteen African American boy in middle America. I was looking for an anchor at a time in my life when I felt like I might blow away at any moment.

I found that anchor in Johnson’s work, as well as in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (1992) and Reverend angel Kyodo williams whose Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (2000) provided more than an anchor. It lit the tunnel that I felt I was trapped in so that I could see my way forward.

I’ve begun reading a bunch of black Buddhists writing again, mostly because so many more writings by black Buddhists have been published in the past, say, ten years. A few: Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist–One Woman’s Spiritual Journey (2008) by Jan Willis, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (2016), edited by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, PhD (2016), Spring Washam’s A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Love, and Courage at Any Moment (2017), and Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out (2018) by Ruth King as well as several by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel(it does not escape me that women are leading the movement).

(As an aside, I got to spend some time with Spring at an amazing women’s retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center this past September. She is a powerful Shaman and thought leader, full of love and compassion)

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where we spent most of our days–beautiful

Another that came out in 2014 is Johnson’s Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice, a collection of writings that have been previously published elsewhere in diverse venues. The author announces in the Preface to the collection that of all the books he’s published—and there have been quite a few—both fiction and nonfiction, the most spiritually rewarding work was Turning the Wheel. According to Johnson “On its pages, the two activities that have anchored my life for sixty-five years and reinforce each other—creative production and spiritual practice—were humbly offered to readers as moments that crystallized what I have learned during my passage through American literature, the visual arts, and the Buddhadharma” (ix). Ten years later, Johnson felt like it was time to publish another such work; one that honored the recent creative work of others, the changing socio-political conditions of the country, and developments in his own personal life, not the least of which is his becoming a grandfather.

The book is divided into three sections: Part One: Essays, Part Two: Reviews and Prefaces, and Part Three: Stories. Part One is the longest section and covers a wide range of topics including how the Dharma has influenced his artistic work, the Dharma’s influence on the philosophy, teachings and work of the venerable Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  to the importance of Buddhist participation in the political process, to why Buddhism is a viable path for Black America in this current moment. He even does a treatment of the election of the man who was then to be elected two-time president of the United States, Barack Obama before ending with treatment of George Zimmerman’s murder of sixteen year old Trayvon Martin through a Buddhist lens.

Part Two, consisting of prefaces and introductions to others’ texts and book reviews, was a nice break from all the heavy thinking that I had to do in Part One ;), what with trying to remember Buddhist terms and concepts with which Johnson is intimately familiar (and which to his credit, he clearly defines several times), and the nuanced way that he works through his exploration of the intersections of Buddhism and several diverse topics that bear down on American life in each discrete essay. I was especially interested in his review of two books by two African American women Buddhists that had recently been published; both of which I’ve mentioned: Being Black (2000) by ordained Zen priest Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and the other, Dreaming Me  (2001) by Jan Willis, a Sanskitist and Indo-Tibetan scholar who is professor emerita of religion at Wesleyan University.

Johnson’s review of Willis’ work is rightfully glowing. However, when he gets to Rev. Kyodo’s text he almost seems to not get it. While he notes that the book is written with urgency and humor, and clearly understands that the author seeks “to deliver to black America the tools for survival and self-transformation” (107) he seems to have a problem with the way that the message is delivered. Channeling a poet friend of his, Johnson remarks that Being Black tries to do too much in its compact 192 pages, “resulting in congeries of well-worn Zen chestnuts” (107). He also seems to object to the the language that Rev. Kyodo uses, asking rhetorically, “Are black Americans unable to understand and accept the Dharma, or for that matter anything that originates outside their historical experience as a group, unless it is delivered with a supposedly ‘black flavor’?” The answer is, of course not, evidenced by Willis as well as, as he remarks, black (and Latino) members of Soka Gokkai Buddhists who do not need copies of the Lotus Sutra written in ‘black English’” (109). Johnson knows this, but nonetheless criticizes a work that serves an important role in the black community. Who knows how many people have been drawn to the Dharma after picking up Being Black and seeing themselves within its pages as Rev. Kyodo writes

Funky attitude, arrogant, self-pitying, too fat, kinky-haired, pimpled, freckled, too tall, too short, not enough money, always late, high-strung, unmotivated, skinny as a rail, high yellow, chinky-eyed, Kunta Kinte-looking, half-breed, flat-nosed, dim-witted, still living with your momma, working at McDonalds, conceited, know you better than anyone else, Cuchifrita, Coconut, Spic, Negro…”

There is something to be said for the use of the “language of the people” when the goal is to welcome different bodies into the fold, especially when those bodies have been traditionally shunned. I wholeheartedly agree with  the founders of the black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective’s, assertion in their defining statement that “Even our Black women’s style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political”. There is a time and place for language that holds resonance for people. Rev. Kyodo recognized that time and place and acted.

Those people who need and seek the Dharma will recognize in her language “The Dozens”, a game many African-Americans grew up playing, and that for all of its problems, in a world that doesn’t love us, signaled that we were accepted as part of a community that loved and supported us even though we were all of those things. And sometimes that’s needed—that thread that reaches out and connects.

In that sense, Being Black has its place in the Buddhism as it is emerging and evolving, including the faces, experiences, and voices of the many. I see it as a “by any means necessary approach” that is both appropriate and warranted.

Part Three is comprised of several short stories, all of which I devoured. My favorite was “Kamadhatu, a Modern Sutra” about a young priest named Toshiro Ogama who has taken over the care of a fourteen-hundred-year-old Buddhist temple called Anraku-ji, which means “peaceful, at ease”. However, rather than being at ease, the priest, having lost his parents in a car accident when he was fifteen years old, is painfully shy, and feels like “a failure, an outright fraud”(152). He hides from the world, a recluse.

His life changes when a young African American woman Buddhist scholar, Dr. Cynthia Tucker, whose work he is translating, shows up at his doorstep requesting to be his student. He, of course refuses, but agrees to let her be of some service to the temple cleaning out one of the small storage closets, which contains items that the last abbot fifty years before had left behind. What Dr. Tucker unearths, a film about a funeral ceremony that had taken place during the Korean War in the very room in which they watch the film, opens the priest’s eyes to “his own self-nature” and allows him to shed his “sense of twoness”(159). Quite a feat indeed as this twoness, this splitting of ourselves in two (duality), our need to compare ourselves to our past selves, others to us, who we could be and who we are, is a constant struggle. The fact that it is an African-American woman who aids in the priest’s revelation is icing on the cake.

I also really enjoyed the last story in the collection, “The Weave”, for very different reasons. The story, based loosely on a news article of a robbery that took place in 2012 and with an epigraph by Chris Rock from his film Good Hair (2009) is about a young African American hairdresser, Ieesha, who wears her hair natural and shuns make-up and her boyfriend, Frances, who adores her natural beauty. The two rob the beauty parlor that Ieesha has been recently fired from of its human hair supply.

Johnson seamlessly works into the story the history of the hair, collected from Indian women taking vows of renunciation of vanity, taken from Buddhist temples, sold to Korean merchants for pennies, and after being cleaned of lice, sold by those merchants on the international market in a $9 billion industry “devoted precisely to keeping women forever enslaved to the eyes of others” (190).

Johnson makes a heartbreaking connection between the misuse of this sacred cultural practice and the exploitation of poor, mostly black women who, “forced to choose between food and their winter fuel bill, go into debt shelling out between $1,000 and $3,000, and sometimes as much as $5,000, for a weave with real human hair” (188).

I will close my review of Taming the Ox by quoting from Johnson’s essay, “Why Buddhism for Black America America Now?”. He says,“Like the narrator of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, many black Americans today possibly feel ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’” (63-64). I feel immensely grateful to live at a time when Buddhist writers and scholars who look like me and share many of my concerns, preoccupations, and fears generously share their knowledge and deep wisdom to help point us/me in the direction of freedom. I am grateful to have discovered Charles Johnson at a time when I desperately needed his words. I am grateful to rediscover him during a time of renewed commitment to growth, spiritual and otherwise. I see him and the other writers whom i highlight here as purveyors of transmissions that will be instrumental in showing the world “how we get free” to quote the title of Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s edited text on Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017), the gorgeous text that I’m presently deep into. Stay tuned!!

* See Pressley-Sanon, Toni. “‘A Lion at Pendleton’: Charles Johnson’s Reimagining of a Moment.” Obsidian: Literature and Arts of the African Diaspora 41.1-2 (Spring 2016): 195-208

An interview with Charles Johnson about the evolving meaning of Middle Passage.

“We Cry Out for Justice” by Jan Willis

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel website

Spring Washam website

Reverend angel Kyodo williams website

Ruth King website

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