Good Book Review About Dreaming Me: My Journey In Buddhism
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The book, Dreaming Me, is a unique and beautiful look inside the life of author Jan Willis. The novel is a biography of the author’s journey of life in the United States at a time when racism was still a major factor in the day to day lives of black folks in America. The experience of these challenges she faced, growing up black in Alabama took its toll on her. The book proceeds to engage the reader in how Buddhism came across Jan Willis’ life and the healing that she found in her studies of the eastern religion. The following essay will explore the role of Buddhism in Jan Willis’ life according to her tale of her life journey in Dreaming Me.
Growing up in Alabama as a light skinned black girl in the 1950’s was a disconcerting experience for young Jan. Even though both her parents were black, her light features brought questioning and criticism aimed at her for her ‘white features’. The turmoil of the knowing that somewhere in her DNA was the blood of a white man who had most likely raped a black slave, made her sick to her stomach causing a deep suffering in her psyche (Willis, 2008). The problem was the sense of not belonging anywhere that made it hard for a girl like Jan. She was not white by any means, but she did not feel the full acceptance of herself as a black person either, knowing that the mixing of races in prior generations was a fact. The following excerpt from the book displays the authors sentiment of her genetics.
I had always hated the word miscegenation. Now I experienced why. Facing the fact of my white ancestry was like being given the diagnosis of cancer. There were white blood cells living inside of me that were out of the closet and out of control. They were eating my body and my soul alive, and I didn’t know if I could survive it. What does one do when’ the oppressors blood courses in one’s own veins? How could I run away from myself? How to make peace with such horrific origins? (Willis, 2008).
The self-hate is evident when reading this portion of the novel. I found this extremely relevant to include in the relevance of how Buddhism changed her outlook on life. Growing up under the terms of what she shares, show a lack of inner peace that has been present for her at the core of her existence. The desperation of peace had to be a strong driving force in her pursuit of happiness and well-being as she grew into adulthood.
Jan’s interest in life on a deeper more meaningful scale was present in her youth as she was drawn to interests that were unlike many of her peers. For example, she loved classical music by Dvorak and Rimsky -Korsakov at the very young age of four, before she was even aware of the influence of black spirituals in Dvorak’s music (Willis, 2008). The evidence of her search for life beyond the external seems to have been a part of who Jan was from the beginning. Not only was Jan an extremely intelligent young lady, but also had a strong religious influence from her Baptist upbringing.
As the years went by and Jan found herself at Cornell University for her studies, she had the opportunity to visit a Tibetan monastery. The experience affected her profoundly, especially as she faced the challenge of joining the Black Panther party, which embraced an aggressive manner of change, versus her own exposure to a non-violent path of change. Cornell allowed her to spend her last year of school in the Tibetan monastery where her journey with Buddhism emerged. Jan had been an extremely ambitious young lady, driven to work hard at attaining the next level of whatever she set up for herself as the next goal to achieve, this drive followed her to the monastery.
While at the Tibetan monastery, Jan was forced to change. Not by external factors, such as people or any urging of a materialistic sort, but the change that came from her studies of Buddhism and slowing down her mind through the process of meditation. Learning to take accept that growth and change are not an overnight process but one that requires patience was a lesson that Jan was learning in her life at the monastery (Willis, 2008). Her emotional scars of childhood that disturbed her inner peace were to be overcome through her practice of meditation and Buddhism during her time in Nepal at the monastery.
Her time at the Tibetan monastery was spent under the guidance of Lama Yeshe who was her guru, her spiritual teacher in her transformation. She bonded with Lama Yeshe in a profound manner because of the non -judgmental love that emanated from him. The time spent meditating and learning of Tantric Buddhism taught her self-love, something that was lacking in her life. Even though in Christianity the concept of ‘love thy neighbor as thy self’ was a commonly held belief and saying, the true understanding was missing when one does not have love for themselves. Self-love was one of the fundamental changes that Jan Willis’ experienced in her practice of Buddhism that changed her life.
The difficulties that she faced in life as a black girl who was regularly insulted by the whites and sometimes her own mother lacked a sense of love for her. Regardless of the amazingly intelligent and extraordinary individual she was, her self-esteem was shattered and missing. The inner peace in life was lacking. Her life prior to the new lessons learned in Buddhism was difficult in a way that no external factors could change. Meditation and Buddhism were responsible for the healing took place inside Jan Willis.
During her time in Nepal, an interesting scenario unfolds with the author having an unpleasant reaction to something called rakshi, which is liquor that is taken six times daily at the monastery (Willis, 2008). Jan was given an alternative suggestion on her illness that she believed was caused by the sulfates in the liquor. The Tibetans said, “The mental poisons that arise from this grasping are the harmful emotions of ignorance, hatred, and desire” (Willis, 2008). The significance of this statement impacted the author greatly in how she realized the inner pain that she felt, caused by her mental state and thoughts about her life. Through the practice of meditation, change in the thoughts of the mind and relationship with the world were responsible for the growth she experienced in her studies of Buddhism.
The enlightenment and growth of her studies in Buddhism inspired her to continue her education in religious studies. The expertise she gained during her personal growth was then carried out in her educational pursuit of her doctorate in religious studies from Columbia University. She began teaching at Wesleyan University in the department of religion where she has remained for 24 years. The lesson that she learned of overcoming her suffering by awareness of herself in the creation of the unpleasant reality have changed her as a person. She hopes to carry this knowledge on to others through her classes and also to other groups.
Buddhism, which has been prevalent with the elite whites in American, is something she hopes to make accessible to all races and groups throughout the United States. Buddhism brought peace and purpose to Jan Willis’ life who now jokes about herself as a ‘Baptist Buddhist’.
Willis, Janice D. Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist: One Woman's Spiritual Journey.
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008. Print.
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