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"A Baptist-Buddhist" by Jan Willis

10 March 2010

Returning one night to Hartford’s Bradley Airport after two Christmas holiday weeks spent with my family in Alabama, another thoroughly frightening event took place. As usual, I was flying on Delta Airlines. The company’s biggest hub is Atlanta; they fly hundreds of flights into Birmingham and their pilots have a first-rate flying record. Hence, for most of the flight into Hartford, I was feeling pretty relaxed. However, temperatures all up and own the East Coast were pretty frigid, and this caused a good deal of turbulence. As we bumped along, dipping and rolling in the rough air, there were more than a few clenched fists in evidence. Buckled in at my window seat, for most of the hour-and-fifty-minute trip I tried to maintain a relaxed attitude, trusting in our pilots to steer us safely in. Still, as Bradley’s airfield came into view, I found myself being more than a little relieved.

From the window, I could see the lights of the air strip. Like most others on this particular flight, I let out a sigh of relief. Seated beside me were an older woman who had seemed frightened for most of the trip and a young girl who was, presumably, her grandchild. I smiled encouragingly before I spoke to her, “Okay! See, there’s the runway! It won’t be long now.”

We were no more than a few feet above the tarmac. The plane’s landing gear was down, its headlights illuminating the field. Then things abruptly changed. In an instant, the plane veered steeply upward. It went into a climb that was almost perpendicular. We were like astronauts, our heads pressed back against our seats, our bodies feeling the G-forces of lift-off. My own knuckles went white. Papers from somewhere started blowing through the compartment. Overhead doors snapped open. Oxygen masks dropped. Some people started to scream. I started to pray, at first aloud and then silently, but speeded up, with urgency. I called on both my guru, Lama Yeshe, and upon Jesus. “Lama Yeshe!” I screamed, “May I never be separated from you in this or future lives!” Gripping my armrests, I continued in silence, “May you and all the Buddhas help and bless us now!” Without pausing, I then fervently intoned, “Christ Jesus, please help us. Please, I pray, bless me and all these people!”

That plane climbed straight up for almost four minutes. My prayers became continuous mantras. Finally, the engines’ roar lessened and the plane began to level off. The pilot’s voice came over the speakers. He sounded nervous himself but tried to speak reassuringly, “Ah-h, ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. It seems that just as we were landing we hit one of those stiff wind shears and we had to get out of it. We’re going to try this landing again, this time from the east.” A collective sigh went up from all of us.

I call myself a “Baptist-Buddhist” not to be cute or witty. I call myself a “Baptist-Buddhist” because it is an honest description of who I feel I am. When I was on that plane, racing straight upward through the frigid night air, I did not feel as though I were simply hedging my bets. I felt sheer and utter terror, and I called on both traditions for help. Long ago, Kierkegaard had argued that one doesn’t know what one really believes until one is forced to act. That climbing plane showed me what I believed.

Most times, actually, I think of myself as being more an African American Buddhist. When I seek to make sense of things or to analyze a particular situation, I am more likely to draw upon Buddhist principles than Baptist ones. But when it seems as though the plane I’m on might actually go down, I call on both traditions. It is a deep response.

About this dual description, my folks seem, generally, accepting. Though one day while telling me that she thought my years with Lama Yeshe hadn’t caused me any harm, my mother did let me know, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that she worried for my soul and its salvation. Many others, who’ve had occasion—or taken the license—to comment on it, have stridently voiced disdain and disapproval: “Either you believe in Christ, our Lord, as your sole and only savior, or you’re lost!” A young, well-educated, and articulate black man who was visiting Wesleyan once told me exactly this. To this vociferous attack by a newly reborn Christian, and to others like it, I can only say, “Well, I trust that Jesus Himself is more understanding and compassionate.” The Jesus I knew from the Gospel stories was the Jesus who had ministered to women, to the poor and the downtrodden; and He was the Jesus I knew personally, because He had ridden with me on that bus ride to Cornell. Moreover, it seems to me that those who see a disjuncture in my being a Baptist-Buddhist haven’t spent any amount of time reflecting on what, or who, a Buddha really is—or a Christ, for that matter. As always, in matters of faith and of the heart, a little concrete experience and practice usually takes one higher, while at the same time sets one on firmer ground.

If I have learned anything about myself thus far it is that in my deepest core I am a human being, graced by the eternal truths espoused both by Baptists and by Buddhists. And more than that, I am aware that it is not any particular appellation that matters. For ultimately, what I have come to know is that life—precious life—is not a destination. Life is the journey.

Excerpted from "Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist – One Woman’s Spiritual Journey" by Jan Willis (Wisdom Publications)

Jan Willis is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University. She has studied with Tibetan Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland and the U.S. for four decades, and has taught courses in Buddhism for thirty-five years. Willis has published a number of books, articles and essays on various topics in Buddhism, including Buddhist meditation, women and Buddhism and Buddhism and race.


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