This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “What does Buddhism Offer an African-American Woman?” with guest Jan Willis. Click here to listen to the episode.
Why do we believe what we believe? Why do some religions compel us and others feel like fairy tales? Why do we hold to some values, even if we fail to realize them, and reject others as not even worthy of pursuing? These are profound questions that overlap philosophy, psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology. Religion and belief are not simple.
We know, for example, that most Americans will be raised Christian, and as the recent season has shown us, even if they do not consider themselves believers, they will find solace and joy in holidays like Christmas. Yet there are others who choose to convert to Islam or Buddhism; the Grand Forks synagogue is full of former Christians who became Jews, and North Dakota is a pretty Christian place. If we could map this out, would we discover that belief is just an accident of birth? Is it the resolution to our various neuroses and insecurities or simply free will, a perfect illustration of what choice is supposed to mean?
The movie Slumdog Millionaire attempted to answer these questions. In it, a poor young man finds himself winning the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and the movie recounts the biographical moments in which he learned the answers to each question. It is a beautiful movie, but it feels like a cool party trick. If what he knows is just the luck of the draw, where is his agency? And, if, as some might suggest, God had prepared him to win the show by giving him the answers, why hadn’t God intervened sooner? The notion that our knowledge is just what happens to appear before us leaves me empty.
An alternate theory is posed by the documentary Devil’s Playground, which purports to tell the story of Amish teens who experience Rumspringa, when they leave the safety of their community to experience the wider world. Through experiencing the secular, they are expected to be able to compare Amish and non-Amish life and choose, for themselves, whether they want to be baptized. There is no divine intervention in their choices, they just have to manage their vices. But this feels like a caricature of both religion and the secular. Surely every life is a negotiation between virtue and vice.
Some religions believe in forced conversions or baptisms, taking choice away. Other want to unify the political and religious spheres, creating societies and institutions that lead all people down one path, suggesting freedom while hedging their bets. Still others just want to be left alone, accepted as legitimate but resistant to new adherents. Which of these plans we think is appropriate is determined, largely, by our own religious beliefs.
Of course, there are secular atheists who reject all of these options, and regard all religious systems as deceptions or power and money grabs, who view adherents as needy dupes. I suspect a good scholar of religion would suggest that belief is a combination of every theory I described: an unmappable interaction between choice, opportunity, circumstance, need, and manipulation. Somewhere in there, there may or may not be awareness of the truth, whatever that means.
It is against this background that today’s show will explore two seemingly unrelated topics: Tibetan Buddhism and the African-American tradition. I say seemingly unrelated, because given the overlapping history of the African continent and the United States of America, we do not usually think of Buddhism as connected to the black community. We think of Buddhism as a South or East Asian religion and we presume African Americans to be Christian. Some of this is demographics—predominant Christian affiliation is simply a statistical fact about the U.S.—and some of it is history. Martin Luther King was a Baptist reverend and leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the non-violent face of the Civil Rights movement, eclipsing Muslim Malcolm X, even though for what it’s worth, Malcolm was never violent in his activism either. He just kept the possibility of force on the table.
Our guest today is an African-American Buddhist, a statistical anomaly. She calls herself a “Baptist-Buddhist,” making her all the more unique. She’s also a highly regarded professor of religious studies and, of course, countless other things I don’t have the time to mention here, including student, teacher, friend, daughter, author, citizen, and world-traveler, all of which figure prominently in her memoir. She will help us investigate the nature of religious choice as well as unpack what Buddhism is and can be. And I suspect—I hope—that we will all walk away from this discussion the same way I did from her memoir, recognizing that in an increasingly cosmopolitan and connected world, all religious traditions are on the table and that we are all, at least in theory, free to choose the one, or ones, that best speak to us.
Follow the author on Twitter at @jackrweinstein