When the Klan burned a cross on her lawn, a young Willis wanted to talk, not fight. She turned to Buddhism, a religion dominated by white élites in the West, as a way of coming to terms with the "wounds of race"

Of Color and The Cushion
By NADYA LABI

In 1981, during a visit to a temple of 1,000 Buddhas in Bangkok, Jan Willis lingered over a single, ungilded statue. Unlike its golden neighbors, the Buddha was black. In that moment, the assurances of her Buddhist teacher—"You're already a Buddha; you just have to manifest it"—became real.

Willis, 52, is an African-American professor of Buddhism at Wesleyan University. At her home in Middletown, Conn., she points to a snapshot of the 1981 encounter, noting that only after a decade of meditation was she able to examine her blackness. She adds, "I became able to deal with the deep wounds of race because of Buddhist practice."

The wounds were many for a woman who grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and '60s; who as a child was warned not to roll down the car windows lest Ku Klux Klan members throw acid in her face; who as a teen watched men and women and children in satin robes burn a cross on her lawn; and who as a college student joined an armed protest to demand a black-studies program at Cornell University. She felt she had two choices after graduation: become a Black Panther or return to Nepal (where she had spent part of her junior year) to study at a Tibetan monastery.

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Name: Jan Willis
Why critics are taking note: An excerpt from her memoir, "Dreaming Me: An African American Baptist-Buddhist Journey," appears in the November issue of Tricycle

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