An Excerpt from Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing

by Charles Johnson

These cultural questions, so eloquently expressed by Du Bois and King (and many others), which pose the ancient, pre-Socratic problem of how shall we live, consumed my imagination and intellectual interests from adolescence into adulthood. They kept me up late at night. They colored my perceptions of all I saw and heard in the 1960s and 1970s. They were behind my first practicing meditation when I was fourteen, falling in love with philosophy when I was eighteen, and equally behind my turn to writing novels at twenty-two. This historic devotion to freedom by black America’s finest leaders also prepared me in my depths for embracing the Buddhist Dharma as the most revolutionary and civilized of possible human choices, as the logical extension of King’s dream of the “beloved community,” and Du Bois’s “vision of what the world could be if it was really a beautiful world.”

Were it not for the Buddhadharma, I’m convinced that, as a black American and an artist, I would not have been able to successfully negotiate my last half century of life in this country. Or at least not with a high level of creative productivity, working in a spirit of metta toward all sentient beings, and selfless service to others as a creator, teacher, husband, father, son, colleague, student, lecturer, editor, neighbor, friend, and citizen, which, in my teens, were ideals I decided I valued more than anything else. The obstacles, traps, and racial minefields faced by black men in a society that has long demonized them as violent, criminal, stupid, bestial, lazy, and irresponsible are well-documented…

For me, Buddhism has always been a refuge, as it was intended to be: a place to continually refresh my spirit, stay centered and at peace, which enabled me to work joyfully and without attachment even in the midst of turmoil swirling round me on all sides, through “good” times and “bad.” So I am thankful for the perennial wisdom in its two-millennia-old sutras ; the phenomenological insights of Shakyamuni himself into the nature of suffering, craving, and dualism; the astonishing beauty of Sanskrit, which I’ve been privileged to study now for five years; and the methods of different forms of meditational practice, the benefits of which fill whole libraries.

(Taken from the introduction, pages xvi-xvii)

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is Director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University and author of two memoirs and many books of poetry.