Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I will praise thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalms 139:14

 I'm a practicing Buddhist, but I grew up as an only child in a quietly pious Christian home and within the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest independent denomination among black churches, founded in 1816 by Rev. Richard Allen in Philadelphia. Faith was simply part of the fibre of our black American lives in the 1950s. The central lived "locations" of my early childhood were three: home, where I had loving, supportive, and unselfish parents; Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, where I embraced a religion that was two millennia old and shaped every aspect of Western civilization; and Noyes Elementary School, where the teachers in that integrated institution were first-rate, as they would be when I went to Evanston Township High School (it was often rated in the 1960s as the #1 public high school in America.) All three of these places were within short walking distance, and symbiotically nurtured each other.

Naturally, home was the foundation, a location my parents made a fun place to be, especially my Mom because she aspired to be a teacher and had an artistic sensibility (and sometimes taught Sunday school.) The black church provided a clear moral and spiritual vision as well as a community of people with shared values. And the school offered exciting knowledge about the wider world. This basic triad was essential for forming my values in the 1950s and a major influence on my future as a liberal humanist. No one point on this triad could adequately do all the work of the others. All three working together were necessary. I believe that if one of those elements in the triad had been removed, my early life would have been poorer for that, and less complete.

Never a night passed when I did not see my father, a strong black man who loved black people, on his knees in prayer before bedtime. (And my own kids can say that about me.) He was reliable, solid as a rock, a guru (the Sanskrit word means "too heavy to be moved"). When he died at age 81, he had five preachers at his funeral in rural South Carolina, and what one said in his eulogy let me know he knew my father very well. He said Dad was never in the choir, nor did he volunteer to be a deacon or on different committees. But he was there every Sunday (and apologized to the pastor if for some reason he couldn't make it), smiling as he absorbed the sermons and loving it when the choir sang. (Some of my southern relatives have their own traveling gospel group and sell CDs of their work.) This pastor said my Dad never talked scripture or spoke of his faith. It was simply an integral part of his life. He'd work three jobs a week sometimes, but I remember that he told his white employers that he'd never work on Sunday because, as he put it, "Sunday was for church."

Given this background, I can confess---now that I'm retired----that my movement through the secular (and often anti-religious) academic and art worlds was sometimes less than easy. Indeed, sometimes it was downright hard, spiritually. I kept my liberal Christian background to myself when in college during the late 1960s, and during my 33 years in higher education (I do wear a cross, and once one of my now successful students, novelist Gary Hawkes, said to me after class, "That must be awfully heavy around your neck"). For me, there was always a moral "bright line" that I was conditioned not to cross, so often in the art and academic worlds I felt "in it but not of it." I'm sure my easy relationship with John Gardner had something to do with his being, as one critic put it, "shyly Christian." 

My being a Buddhist was always much more "acceptable" in academic and artistic circles, especially to atheists, because that spiritual path makes no reference to God, and for that reason was originally classified as a "philosophy" not a religion by Christians when they first encountered it. (I think this initial Western classification has much truth to it.) Inwardly, I've always cringed whenever I found myself in the company of people who dump on or trash Christianity, and I've promised myself these days to politely---or maybe not so politely---leave the room whenever that kind of myopic intolerance rears its head. (Yet in my youth I often found myself arguing passionately, angrily, with dogmatic, fundamentalist Christians---who get on my last nerve---because they were dismissive of science and philosophy.) I probably pray silently a hundred times a day. When I tell a sick or suffering friend or former student that they will be in my prayers and meditations, I mean it. They will be in them that night.

So, like Dr. Jan Willis, who calls herself a "Baptist/Buddhist," and Thich Nhat Hahn, who has an image of Jesus on his meditation shrine in France and authored the best-selling book Living Buddha, Living Christ, I'm really a product of two spiritual traditions, and I would never deny or reject my past. In Asia, you'll find quite a bit of spiritual blendings of this kind. And, of course, Buddhists are ontologically non-dualistic, and believe in the interdependence of all things.

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