Max Orsini is a poet, songwriter, and critical essayist from Brooklyn, New York, and has lived, worked and traveled along the East Coast and in Europe. His scholarly interests include twentieth century American poetry, British Romanticism, Haiku and Axiomatic writings, Sufi Poetry, Zen Buddhist Poetry, Contemporary Japanese Fiction, Contemporary Women's Poetry, and African-American Literature of the twentieth century. Orsini is currently a Doctoral student of Arts and Letters at Drew University in New Jersey where he also teaches Writing in the English Department.

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"As a strangling vine chokes a tree
So does a person's unwholesome action destroy him….
Unwholesome action, hurting self, comes easily;
Wholesome action, healing self, takes effort….
{So} by oneself is evil undone, by oneself is one made pure.
Let each one embrace his own truth
And devote himself to its fulfillment."

- --From "Self," the twelfth chapter of the Buddhist Dhammapada


"It is the trauma of slavery that haunts African Americans in the deepest recesses of their souls. This is the chief issue for us. It needs to be dealt with head-on—not denied, not forgotten not suppressed. Indeed, its suppression and denial only hurts us more deeply, causing us to accept a limiting, disparaging, and even repugnant view of ourselves. We cannot move forward until we have grappled in a serious way with all the negative effects of this trauma….Buddhism offers us some tools to help accomplish this task, since it shows us both how to get at those deep inner wounds, and how to heal them."

--- From Jan Willis' Buddhism and Race


Introduction: Toward a Buddhist Perspective of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance began, in large part, as a socioeconomic pilgrimage of African-Americans from the Southern United States, to the North, and in particular, Harlem. As T. Harris Lopez aptly notes in the Forward to The Library of Congress' Harlem Renaissance: Volume 1, "That moment {The Harlem Renaissance} occurred because of the confluence of social and historical forces. The devastation…wrought on Southern crops and the ensuing economic chaos led many blacks to migrate from the South to northern cities as a part of what became known as the Great Migration" (xi). Lopez goes on to discuss the way in which, beyond the obvious socioeconomic reasons from black migration, "mythical presentations" of the North, and the "legendary promise" of New York City, added an element of grandeur, a mythic proportion to the greater move North (Lopez xi). David Levering Lewis, in his Introduction to The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, though acknowledging what he calls the "historic reality" of the movement, instead calls the "phenomenon" of the Harlem Renaissance a "cultural nationalism of the parlor, institutionally encouraged by leaders of the national civil rights establishment for the paramount purpose of improving race-relations in a time of extreme national backlash…." (xiii). Levering Lewis even adds to his explanation of the Rise of the New York Movement by suggesting that, in addition to historic, cultural, and social impetuses, a large group of talented and creative black artists emerged at a time when "so little fiction or poetry had been produced by African Americans in the years immediately prior to the Harlem Renaissance…." (xv).

Lopez' and Levering Lewis' assertions hereby serve to reveal a wide range of forces coinciding at once like a series of sub-atomic particles within the nucleus of a molecule. With the turn of the century, and then the ultimate beginning, and "end," of WWI, we not only see historical, cultural, economic, and aesthetic revision taking place interracially among blacks, and nationally, within the United States; we also see intra-racial, trans-Atlantic, and global reconsiderations taking place after the fall of Germany at the end of WWI. In fact, many of the American soldiers (Levering Lewis reminds us) shipped overseas were black soldiers, primarily men, who perhaps brought back with them values, customs, and ideas acquired abroad. Harlem, seen from thus more copious global perspective, becomes not only a place where advances in race relations, economic mobility, and aesthetic experimentation become visible; Harlem, moreover, becomes a nexus of international and cross cultural ideologies. It becomes a dynamic, but also deeply enlightening, even meditative and contemplative space, where ideological, philosophical and spiritual boundaries become traversed, and perhaps, erased. Harlem becomes, in the late teens, twenties, and early thirties, a temple of artistic and spiritual discourse, one in which attendees, many of whom were revolutionary, and deeply spiritual, black female authors, take up the pen as a means of engaging in a global-religious discourse in search of selfhood, community and freedom from racial bondage and oppression.

More specifically, it is my contention, that the Harlem Renaissance, while clearly a period of great literary and artistic energy and social activism, might additionally be regarded as a period in which African American writers, and in particular, the female authors of the Harlem Renaissance, sought healing from a wounded past of bondage by locating, and finding strength in, the meditative healing power of Eastern spirituality, namely Buddhism. I hope to enlarge the conversation taking place around women (and potentially men) of the Harlem Renaissance by adapting a revisionary Buddhist lens that borrows, in part, from Melanie Harris' illuminating vision of "Buddhist Meditation for the Recovery of a Womanist self," from what Jan Willis (whom Harris quotes) calls a "suppressed" and "wounded" black past. Furthermore, though I wish not to, by any means adopt a pronouncedly "feminist" position throughout this paper, I do wish to consider, alongside Harris' Womanist Buddhist approach, the "revisionist," but embracive perspective elucidated by Patton and Honey in the introduction to their anthology Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. In their opening section of their Introduction, titled, "Cross-Currents and Gender, Genre, and Sexuality, Patton and Honey " hope to restore and underline the importance of women's writings to a literary awakening whose primary metaphors were female centered: fertility, gestation, and birth (xx). Though I seek not to directly discuss these aforementioned themes, Patton's and Honey's attention to literary "awakening" through the use of "metaphor" is of chief importance to this paper. It is precisely the metaphor of Black women (and their female characters) within the Harlem Renaissance as "awakened, enlightened Buddhas, finding themselves, liberating themselves and then healing themselves from the wounds of suffering that I wish here to explore in the subsequent pages of this essay.

This exploration of African American women's literature and visual art, and more specifically, metaphorical images of African-American women of the 1920s and 30s as 'Buddhas' meditating under the canopies of mythically resonant trees, will take into account the work of three principal female authors of the Harlem Renaissance: Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Marita O. Bonner. Moreover, I hope to place the fiction, poetic non-fiction, and visual art of these respective African American, female authors in conversation with Buddhist art, literature, and criticism to forge a new global connection and a new scholarly conversation between the cultural and artistic "awakening{s}" that arose out of early twentieth century Harlem and the awakening to enlightenment literally and metaphysically attained by Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha to be) in his achievement of sacred and divine Buddahood. Ultimately, and perhaps most significantly, I wish to highlight the way in which a widening, democratizing, global conversation moving back and forth in fluid streams from West to East, allows for a legacy of African American, female writers like Jan Willis and Alice Walker, to name two, (and potentially other authors across gender and color lines) to have a serious conversation about the possibility of healing the wounds of racial oppression through deep meditation about the nature of personal struggle and communal suffering on the way to what the Buddha, in the Dhammapada, calls "wholeness" and "fulfillment."

A Transformative Aesthetic: Zora Neale Hurston's Mytho-Buddhist Vision

Though I wish to neither suppose nor impose notions that Hurston explicitly adopted or appropriated a strictly Buddhist framework or a singularly Buddhist lens in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, I wish to suggest that Hurston's work opens the doors for a Buddhist dialogue concerning the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and black literature before and after (and possibly between) WWI and WWII. In fact, many critics have acknowledged not only the prophetic, forward-thinking quality of Hurston's Their Eyes, but scholars have also observed the way in which religion, myth, and folklore figure significantly in Hurston's literary and aesthetic vision and her broader, globalized, inter-cultural views of the world. For instance, in chapter one of Meditations and Ascensions: Black Writers on Writing, Marita Golden believes that

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston gave us a task that was colossal when the consciousness of the world when we first met that book was too small, too timid to embrace it. Not until the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, not until the academy opened itself to the vision of women and men of color, was there enough intelligence in the world, not just to read the text, but to submit to it, to allow it to invade us and alter us. These social changes belatedly authorized, and validated a human holistic vision of Black people and Black culture that Hurston legitimized decades before just by writing them down. (9)

What Golden meditates upon here is crucial in our understanding of the way that (re) visionary authors, and in particular, Zora Neale Hurston, provide(s) enlightened insights that precede a culture's contemporary awareness. In this sense, Hurston can be seen as one of those pioneering, literary pilgrims who saw the twentieth century before it had fully happened. I don't wish to present Hurston as much as a literary fortune-teller as I do a kind of wide-eyed mystic observer, a spiritual-anthropologist working with the data of the sacred stories of the past to craft what Golden calls an "altering" and "invading" (to the racial and spiritual core) poetics in novel form.

Though it is implausible to suppose that Hurston was in fact a devout scholar of Eastern spirituality, Hurston, Deborah Orr claims, in her article "The Crone as Lover and Teacher: A Philosophical Reading of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, claims that Hurston drew from "other sources," sources perhaps presented to her by "her mentor and teacher, Franz Boas" (35). Hurston may have indeed appropriated some of her own vision by studying and meditating upon the geographical, anthropological and religious ideas of Boas who, as Orr points out in her article, believed in "the similarity of cultural elements regardless of race, environment, and cultural conditions" (35). Orr goes further in explaining Hurston's mentor's cross-cultural and globalized, anthropological perspective of the world. Citing Boas, Orr explains that the "similarity of cultural elements," myths and traditions throughout the world are a result of the "parallel development" of the "psychic structure of men {and women} the world over" (35). I cite Boas here then to help establish a framework, a context and a purpose for reading Hurston from a Buddhist perspective that may very well have been embedded within the "psychic structure" of Boas' teaching. As an anthropologist, as well as a voracious student of folklore (African American and beyond), Hurston invites into our scholarly consciousness, through her own (pseudo-Buddhist) model of open and harmonious approach to world cultures, a need to meditate more deeply upon the psychic and spiritual dimensions of the socially and environmentally concerned characters that pervade her fiction.

Meditations under Trees: Buddhism and Their Eyes Were Watching God

In Hurston's novel, then, we can see that Jane Sparks, the novel's heroine, is a noticeably spiritual character who, like the Buddha, achieved an enlightened "sparked" vision of the world, through the power of meditation in nature. This inner-yearning to meditate upon the nature of worldly existence manifests itself early in the life of Hurston's enlightenment-seeking, quest-yearning Janie, who, in chapter two of the novel, spends a long spring afternoon lying on her back in her small home town in West Florida. Here, in this early, but integral section of her Hurston's novel, we see Janie beginning her quest for selfhood, as Prince Siddhartha (the eventual Buddha) did in the garden outside his father's palace in India. In a kind of intimate, private, and sacred tone, Hurston's narrator observes that

{Janie} had spent most of…the last three days…under a blossoming pear tree in the backyard….This was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had caller her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf buds; from the leaf buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again…The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her….It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that…buried themselves in her flesh. Now they quested about her consciousness. (23-24)

Though the early scene from Hurston indubitably details Janie Sparks' sexual awakening, as well as the first phase of her coming-of-age (in what can be seen as Hurston's bildungsroman), Janie's youthful awakening under the "blossoming," generating pear tree also symbolizes the kindling of a worldly and spiritual consciousness; the pollen of the pear tree, dusting the air around her, is a ritualistic act performed by nature inviting her to engage in a rite of passage that involves leaving her home (as Siddhartha, the Buddha did). Nature, in this crucial passage, is an agent in the achievement of what Zen Buddhists would call satori, a flash of light, a sudden and spontaneous, but deeply meditative and connective moment of enlarged consciousness. Though Janie does not, in this early teenage episode, know quite why or how or for what purpose she is being called, she has that intuitive, if not "psychic" (to recall the word her mentor Boas used) sense that, nature is acting here as a mother (a surrogate mother for Janie), testifying on her behalf, silently, and wordlessly, but still dynamically and gracefully claiming itself as guide and witness on a necessary journey to attain selfhood.

Furthermore, the natural world, in this revelatory excerpt, is an active, personified presence, much the way that it is in Buddhist faith. It mystifies her, sings to her, breathes upon her, follows her (like a goddess on a hero's journey, on a Prince's journey to Buddhahood), and it buries itself within the deepest recesses of her being, touching her core, urging her to take up a quest. All this language is embedded within the passage, within the Buddhist tonality exuded in Hurston's fictive rhetoric. In fact, Tina Barr, in her essay entitled, "Queen of the Niggerati and the Nile: The Isis-Osiris Myth in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God," discusses not only the way that Hurston incorporates myth, religion, and folklore in her writing, but also notes the way that Hurston's "own autobiography" reveals her "personification of nature and her imaginary vision" (102). Citing Hurston's autobiographical writings in order to establish a context for reading Egyptian myth and lore in Hurston's Their Eyes, Barr quotes Hurston, who recalled that, as a young girl, she was "only happy in the woods," perhaps imbuing Janie's character with an even deeper dimension of Eastern mysticism, for it is through the woods, as an ascetic, that Prince Siddhartha first wanders after leaving home on his journey toward enlightenment (102). Barr further affirms for the reader, (as I wish to affirm here), that Hurston's own "fascination with trees becomes important when we understand Janie's own preoccupation with trees in Their Eyes Were Watching God" (102). Barr even goes on to point out that when she was a girl, Hurston "made particular friendship with one huge tree and always played about its roots," even naming that tree "the loving pine" (102).

Though there is no way to tell if "the loving pine" of her youth is "the blossoming pair" of Janie Sparks' youth, I call on the {auto} biographical here, not to forge a connection between the author's life and the writer's text. I wish more so to evoke the inherent Buddhist undertones and mystical ambience that surrounds Hurston's spirit, and, more importantly, the spirit of her central character, Janie. By looking closely at the relationship between the blossoming Janie, and the blossoming tree, we discover a Buddhist ethos at work in the larger framework of Hurston's mytho-folkloric consciousness. Moreover, we locate a spiritual opening within the larger context of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance where ecological metaphor, the illuminative, life-affirming tree, enables us to engage in conversations about human transcendence and self-empowerment, about cultural healing and personal liberation for black women. Empowerment, healing, and liberation, for Hurston's Janie, as it is for Buddhists, (and as I will suggest later, for other African American female authors) are achieved, however, not by a means of escaping suffering, but instead, by means of confronting struggle, and immersing the self in suffering. What the pear tree teaches Janie Sparks is that, like the tree itself, "She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life, but it seemed to elude her" (25).

Therefore, like the young Prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who leaves home for the life of wandering, unsatisfied with the riches and wealth that have afforded him a privileged life under his father's, the King's, watch (Strong 54), Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, awakens to the fact that arranged marriage and the relative comfort of small-town life (despite all of its shortcomings) are not enough. She becomes alert to the reality that, in order to embrace her humanity and to "blossom," she must embrace "struggle," as the Buddha did, even though, as Buddhist doctrine reminds us time and again, that "life," is ever "elusive." Hurston is keenly aware in her novel, and in her knowledge of world cultures, that struggle is a vital aspect of one's livelihood and that fulfillment emerges not from the sole attainment of happiness, but from the search for joy through struggle. Hurston, we might at least imagine, was aware of what the Buddha has said of struggle in the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha. "Surrounded by struggling…, "the Buddha proclaims, "We live free from conflict" (55). Like the pear tree wrestling with the earth to emerge from taut roots, Janie comes to realize the beauty of struggle and the reality that a life of struggle alleviates one from a life of more deeply problematic conflict. Though she does ironically face multiple struggles with men (as she adjacently struggles with the glaring judging eyes of other women and with the often hypocritical values of her culture at large), it is precisely because of her struggle that Janie finds Tea Cake at novel's end, a man who brings her closer to peace. The pear tree for Janie, and for Hurston, is thus a symbol of liberation from conflict and a tranquil embrace of reality; it is significant of the enlightening realization that we transcend life through struggle, and are thus able to live life thereafter more peacefully and harmoniously.

This search for peace, for harmony within the seemingly rigid confines of society and racial injustice, is a larger theme presiding over the literature and art of the Harlem Renaissance at large; this search or quest for what we might call mobile stability, or dynamic spiritual and intellectual motion amid meditative, collected stasis, emerges, I believe, out of what Trudy Bush, in her article "Transforming Vision: Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston," calls a "wisdom that can transform our {African American} communal relations and our spiritual lives (1). What Hurston's Janie allows us to see, is that "wisdom," community, and deep spirituality are not attained by watching the "eyes" of "God," waiting for his final judgment to befall us. Instead, Hurston's protagonist (an extension of the reader embarking on her or his own respective spiritual quest), aptly, and perhaps even controversially, arrives at the elucidated realization that we must all find "the Kingdom of God" within each one of us. This, too, is synonymous with Buddhism's belief not in a monotheistic God, but in a divine presence potentially within each person. Buddhism emphatically and overtly states each one of us, difficult a sit may be, is capable of attaining the kind of enlightenment that the Buddha attained under the Bodhi tree.

Under, up, and over Trees: Janie's Buddhist Enlightenment

Therefore, like Hurston's Janie Sparks embracing struggle and awakening to self-hood under the blossoming pear tree, the Buddha, Martine Batchelor reminds us, in his book The Spirit of the Buddha, "awakened under a ficus religiosa, which became known as the Bodhi tree. Bodhi means awakening. The ficus religiosa, which is also called a sacred fig…grows in Nepal and India….Its leaves are beautifully heart-shaped with a distinctive long and elegant tip. Because the Buddha attained awakening under such a tree, the tree has become sacred to the Buddhists" (11). In this somewhat botanical, but elegant description of the sacred tree, Batchelor informs us of the way in which nature acts as an agent in an awareness of spiritual consciousness through cultural symbolism. The fig, by way of association, becomes a sacred fruit for Nepalese and Indian Buddhists, the way that the pear becomes sacred to Hurston and readers in search of their own personal fulfillment in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Furthermore, the fruit, both in Hurston's "legend" and in the "legend of the Buddha, (not entirely different from Christianity's apple) serves as a nourishing point of origin, a signifier of creative origination that catalyzes the process of self-attainment and eventual transcendence out of earthly, material existence, into a heightened plane of understanding and wisdom regarding the world.

It is also important to note that, like Hurston's protagonist, the Buddha not only achieves ultimate enlightenment, at the end of his journey, under the Bodhi tree, but also begins his journey, like Janie, in a grove, or field. Prince Siddhartha, or, the bodhisattva as he is often called, "renewed his striving" for nirvana alone, in a delightful grove, under a tree near a river John Strong point out, in The Buddha: A Short Biography. This reemphasizes the point that, in Hurston's novel, as well as in other works of the Harlem Renaissance, moments of spiritual meditation and revelation occur in nature, often near creeks and trees. (Recall, for instance, the way in which Hurston's young protagonist of the story "Drenched in Light," wanders out to the creek beyond her home until she is eventually discovered by the white couple at the end of the story). Moreover, one sees that nature, and in particular trees, in Buddhist narratives, as well as in Hurston's narrative, serve(s) as a means of access to a world previously unattainable to the very human beings in search of an escape from prejudgment, materialism, and impurity that pervade worldly existence.

As Batchelor reaffirms in the introduction to his book, the Buddha is "a human being in his own cultural conditions…trying to find to find a path to resolve his suffering and…become a fully awakened person. By being able to achieve this, not only did he benefit himself, but he went on to teach and help others for forty five years" (2). Though Hurston's Janie is no explicit teacher of a spiritual creed (and far from it), she is, like the Buddha, a living manifestation of self-empowerment, of calm amid the storm (literally and figuratively in Their Eyes). Janie Sparks is a kind of a female Buddha "sparked" and ignited by the radiant power of nature and the healing that arises out of self-fulfillment achieved through struggle. She perseveres, as the Buddha does throughout his life, through a series of obstacles, but gains strength, level-headedness, and even compassion as a result of her toil.

Reflecting upon her life, on the final page of Hurston's novel, Janie, like the Buddha, who his past spread out before him in the moments preceding his enlightenment, his attainment of nirvana, mystically sees Tea Cake, now deceased, but returning to her in a deeply spiritual vision. As if describing an ongoing eternity beyond death, Hurston writes,

Then Tea Cake came, prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course, he wasn't dead. He could never be dead, until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in the horizon like a great fish net. Pulled it around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see. (186)

What Janie experiences here, is akin to what John Strong, in The Buddha: A Short Biography, would calla the attainment of "karmalogical knowledge," a knowledge the Buddha attained in the moments preceding enlightenment wherein the awakened one saw "the span of life" and the "length of time," spread out before him (74). A moment of great recognition occurred for the Buddha in the moments prefiguring his attainment of nirvana, and this recognition enabled him to find peace and fulfillment beyond the endless cycle of births, deaths and re-births that we experience, figuratively speaking, throughout the numerous phases of our lives. What Janie realizes here, in a Buddhist way, is that death leads unto life and the two are tied, not in an endless cycle of pain and suffering, but rather in a karmic, or even cosmic, eternity.

Furthermore, the luminescent imagery that pervades the final, but eternally resonant, concluding chapter of Hurston's novel, is mystical, transcendent. Janie, catalyzed by the luminous vision of Tea Cake wrapped by the sun in a sheltering shawl, is able to release the "sigh" of suffering that accompanied Tea Cake's death, and her life. That "sigh" of struggle, closely observed by the narrator, rises up and rushes out over the tops of the "pine trees," which remind us not only of the pines that Hurston imaginatively anthropomorphized as a young child in the South, but also of the pear trees of Janie Sparks' youth. Here, at the end of Janie's journey toward the achievement of fulfillment, the once tender, blossoming pear trees have become taut, strong, and enduring pines, signifying the completion of a quest that has culminated in the attainment of selfhood and perspective. Janie can now see the whole horizon in her view and she has autonomy, as the Buddha did in his moment of enlightenment, over her own existence.

Finally, it is interesting that Hurston utilizes the language of "netting" in describing Janie's autonomous experience at the end of the novel. Quite often scholars and interpreters of Buddhism, like Alan Watts, posit that one cause of human suffering stems from a desire to clutch impermanent, temporary, worldly things, which Buddhists realize is, ultimately, a futile wish, an inherent impossibility. In his book The Way of Zen, Watts, on more than one occasion, compares human grasping after impermanent things to trying to catch water, or wind in a net. In fact, Watts expounds upon the nature of transitory reality when he assets that it is "the very transitoriness of the world which is the sign of its divinity, of its actual identity…." (42). While there is no evidence that Hurston learned about Zen Buddhist teachings from her mentor Franz Boas or scholars like Alan Watts (who introduced Buddhism and Eastern Spirituality to Americans after WWII), it's quite possible that her rendering of Janie's final action would suggest otherwise. When Janie at last "pulls in the whole horizon like a great fish net," with "so much of life in its meshes," she has finally transcended earthly existence and bodily forms. No longer does she need the physical, bodily affirmation of Tea Cake's physical being to affirm the reality of the love the two of them shared. That love is free of all confining "netting," and is liberated from the often scrutinizing "meshes" of society that so tightly suffocated and entangled her relationships with men, and subsequently strangled her own spiritual liberation and her sought-after womanhood. As if lifted for a moment, from her body, Janie (like the memorable speaker of Whitman's "Song of Myself" "inviting his soul") "calls her soul," and invites it into the realm of glimmering Nirvana. Finally, like the Buddha after years of wandering and seeking fulfillment, "she was at peace."

Drawing Understanding into Yourself: Marita O. Bonner's Buddhist Wisdom and Female Strength

Through Hurston's Buddhist expression of peace arising out of struggle and through her eco-centric metaphor of the pear tree blossoming, like the her self-empowered heroine into a self-fulfilled woman in harmony with a vast horizon of being, a door through which to view the work of other women of the Harlem Renaissance opens. I wish now to consider the way in which Marita O. Bonner's "On Being Young—a Woman—and Colored," a text which explicitly alludes to Buddhism, further opens the door for this globalized, 'Womanist-Buddhist' reading of women's literature of the period. I wish to discuss the way in which Bonner employs Buddhist imagery and ideology to create a space for herself, and for black women at large, wherein gender self-empowerment and gender equanimity might be possible through Bonner's jarring, but deeply meditative vision of a woman's experience. From there, I will move into an examination of visual art and discuss the ways in which Bonner's highly visualized and imagistic depiction of black woman as Buddha corresponds to Gwendolyn Bennett's depiction of a black woman as a seated Buddha in her visual illustration, "The Pipes of Pan" designed for the cover of a 1924 issue of The Crisis. I will then end by placing these images of women as Buddhas in dialogue with a well-known and highly stylized sculptural depiction of the Buddha from the 9th century, seated in meditation, in the moment of enlightenment, returning, ultimately, to Buddhism through the "eyes" of Hurston's Janie Sparks.

Just as Their Eyes Were Watching God adopts a Buddhist point of view in order to treat the complexities of maturing from youth into womanhood within the context of African American experience, Marita O. Bonner informs us of the fact that finding oneself is no easy task in a white patriarchal world. Immediately, on the first page of Bonner's essay, she outlines the predicament in which young, colored women find themselves as they begin life's journey. Bonner speaks openly, and, at times, feverishly (even frustratingly), about the pressure one feels to fit within the framework of a "doll's house," "playing house" so that she (and other women In her position) can find "a husband to look up to without looking down on yourself" (109). Bonner goes on to discuss the way that such rigid expectations placed upon women cause them to want to run or flee. Bonner even admits that "a desire to dash three or four ways seizes you," affirming the notion that young black women, under the pressure to become domesticated and play subordinate roles, face immense pressure (109).

Bonner further discusses the ways in which the youthful desire to escape suffocating social forces gets quelled by reality, a reality which, very much like the language employed by Hurston and the writers and scholars on Buddhist narrative, involves imagery of entrapment within the net of earthly existence. "And one day," Bonner concedes, "you find yourself entangled—enmeshed—pinioned in the seaweed of a black ghetto" (109). Bonner's intriguing mixture of natural metaphor (seaweed— evoking the very grimy bottom of society) and urban metaphor (black ghetto—evoking not only black skin, but also the obscured absence of color), renders an image of inescapability and utter suffering. She continues to describe this literal and figurative "ghetto" in which she finds herself (with other women) "Not…placid like a Strasse that flows, onwardly unperturbed and calm in a stream of religious belief, but a peculiar group. Cut off, flung together, shoved aside in a bundle because of color with no more in common" (109).

With undeniably eclectic, but authentic diction, Bonner highlights, in the aforementioned lines, not only the harsh and constraining conditions colored women must face in Harlem and in cities across the United States, but she also begins to contrast the plight of black women, with the conversely liberated image of a "Strasse," the German word for street, flowing freely without inhibition in a" placid" "stream" of meaningful "religious belief." In this marvelously assonant line, Bonner begins to incorporate the language of religion and spirituality into her essay and begins to envision the image of a flowing street of people moving fluidly like water, as a metaphor for the world in which she wishes to live. Bonner imagines herself living in a world of intentionality, purpose and conviction, one with a belief that contains "religious" proportion. The life Bonner wishes to attain is one that does not reinforce haphazard segregation; she wishes, above all, for a life beyond arbitrary views of what roles women ought to play within the doll houses and ghettos of the world.

The tone of the essay, much the way the tone of Hurston's novel does, begins to acquire greater spiritual resonance and dimensionality as it widens its trajectory. On page two, Bonner intensifies her yearning for a spiritual release from the confines of her reality when she expresses the way that,

A strange longing seizes hold of you….You wish yourself…lifted…out, up and beyond things that have bodies and walls, where you can marvel at new marbles and bronzes and flat colors that will make men forget that things exist in a flesh more often than a spirit. Where you can sink your body in a cushioned seat and sink your soul at the same time into a section of life set before you on the boards for a few hours. (110)

Like the Buddha being lifted from his own body to see the whole world from above in the moment of his enlightenment (and like Hurston's Janie, gathering the whole horizon, and calling her soul to see it), Bonner yearns here in this autobiographical piece, to rise up out of a material existence that erases her selfhood and her potential self-fulfillment. The dream she has for her life is one beyond "walls," beyond material "things" that prohibit fusion with the spirit and immersion with a life beyond the "flesh." "For you know," resigned, and with longing, Bonner confesses, "being a woman," "you cannot…break away" from "money, money, money" and a "spontaneous mass of things" (110-111).

It is consequently "Anglo-Saxon intelligence," (Western patriarchy) which Bonner calls the "warped" and "stunted" "mass" of things obstructing the path to freedom for women of color (110). In fact, she controversially, implicates "Greek" and "Roman" civilization for not "understanding" both the plight of women, and the greater human longing for freedom and liberation from material existence. She claims that these revered Western civilizations have "shut wisdom up" and have "trampled, trammeled" and "lashed her {Wisdom} to themselves" with "thews and thongs and theories" (112). These patriarchal societies have not only co-opted Bonner's personified female, "Wisdom:" they have likewise "subdued her twin-sister, "Understanding," denying women access to the very "keys" to their livelihood and their potential liberation from oppression. The only solution, it appears, is to "sink your body," as Bonner says earlier, into the seated position, like the Buddha seated in the meditative, poised position and then

Be quiet, quiet. Like Buddha—who, brown like I am—sat entirely at ease, entirely sure of himself, motionless and knowing, a thousand years before the white man knew there was so very much difference between feet and hands.
Motionless on the outside. But inside?
Still…"Perhaps Buddha is a woman."
So you too. Still; quiet; with a smile. Ever so slight, at the eyes, so that life will flow into you and not by you. And you can gather, as it passes, the essences, the overtones, the tints, the shadows; draw understanding into yourself. (112)

In lines that break, almost into poem, almost into song, Bonner, through the holy vessel of the Buddha, opens a door to liberation with the keys of meditation, silence, stillness, and inner-strength. This passage is furthermore a necessary "key" in opening up the doors to a room, a shared discursive space, wherein Buddhism and women's literature of the Harlem Renaissance can dwell in confluence. In this culminating passage, Bonner employs silence as a tool of subversion, but does so without hostility, cooption, or unheeded aggression. She conversely creates a sacred space for women, a space that is as ancient and celebrated as the Buddha's timeless, iconic smiling face. "Brown" like her own face, the Buddha's face becomes a kind of genderless visage, smile of equanimity, placidity and peace in the face of oppression. Moreover, like Hurston's Janie, who autonomously, like a self-assured Buddha, gathers up the whole horizon of being, at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Bonner, at the end of her essay, finally "draws understanding into herself," enlightening herself through stillness and peace.


Images of Poise and Calm amid Tumult: Gwendolyn Bennett's Woman in Crisis and the "Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness"

The image, then, of black women, seated (or reclining, as Janie Sparks in part does) in meditation amid a chaos of personal, racial, and spiritual oppression is no accident. It is clear that gathering strength amid weakness, finding calm amid tumult, and seeking harmony amid fragmentation, were indeed prominent concerns of African American women of the twenties and thirties. Turning to Buddhism (and other modes of spirituality, as Hurston did) allowed women to use meditation and stillness as tools to subvert social imbalance and lack of equanimity. This meditative pose, is therefore not only visible in the African American women's literature, but also in their visual art and illustration. In the poet Gwendolyn's Bennett's 1924 cover illustration for the black arts magazine The Crisis, evidence of Buddhism permeating African American female consciousness is visible, yet again. Though Bennett appears to overtly situate her illustration within the context of Greek mythology, within the myth of the Greek god Pan, there is, upon closer examination, a distinctly Buddhist and Far-Eastern ethos arising out of the work. In fact, Bennett uses philosophical history, like Hurston and Bonner, sketches out multiple tensions and dimensionalities, multiple open spaces of interpretation in her work. With that in mind, while Bennett does draw upon the myth of "the goat-god Pan," who Jenny March, in The Penguin Book of Classical Myths, reminds us, "lured his lover Selene "into the woods as she was riding by on her silver chariot," and "then won her favours with the gift of a fine fleece," she wants us, I believe, to find an alternate context for understanding (as Bonner does) the situation of black women within the classical, mythological, Western narrative. Additionally, it is my contention, that Bennett uses the image for the magazine appropriately titled, The Crisis, to test our ability to refuse the seductive playing of "Pan's "pipes" (in all of its seductive resonances). The narrative which Bennett expresses through art, is itself, one in "crisis," wherein the woman seated like a Buddha on the left, tilts her head back, quietly and meditatively attempts to block out the music emanating from the Western god's, Pan's, "pipes" in the middle ground, on the right of the illustration.

Stated perhaps more directly, Bennett situates this woman seated cross-legged under a tree in the foreground of her painting, to draw attention to the way that Buddhist methods of meditation and stillness amid chaos open up spaces of priority for women within the landscape of what Bonner would call "Anglo-Saxon" history, and what Boner and Bennett would collectively call Western mythology. Bennett, with her serene, tranquil protagonist (why must she be tranquilized, subdued, seduced and overcome?) in the foreground, wishes to suggest that women, within the crises of racial segregation, gender oppression, and spiritual confinement, manage to remain balanced and collected. While at the right, there is a chaos of song manifesting itself in swirling forms and Dionysian ecstasy, the women at last appears unbothered and barely stirred. Like the still, almost East-Asian-looking trees in the background behind her (and Bennett may have had 19th century Japanese landscape in mind here), she is steady and at one with her own existence. Finally, like the Buddha who memorably attained enlightenment on his own under the Bodhi tree (after years as an ascetic dwelling in the woods), Bennett's protagonist, perhaps an extension of herself or her other female contemporaries, is able to stave off temptation to attain selfhood and spiritual bliss.


Figure 1: Gwendolyn Bennett, "The Pipes of Pan," cover of The Crisis, March 1924.

In fact, John Strong, in his short biography of the Buddha discusses the way that Mara, "one of the chief divinities in the realm of desire and so Lord of death and rebirth" assaults the Buddha to be with "nine storms" (71). These storms are comprised of a series of tumultuous natural elements and violent environmental forces that threaten the concentration, meditation and livelihood of the bodhisattva. "Wind, rain, rocks, weapons, embers, ashes, sand, mud, and darkness" constitute Mara's madness (Strong 71). Each of these attacks, however, the bodhisattva "thwarts," with his unwavering composure and meditative balance. The assault that Mara launches is a manifestation of the temporary; like the gale winds which "fail to ripple" and the rains which fail to "wet him," the one striving toward enlightenment is not afflicted by the futile attack. Like the Buddha, who wards off Mara's violent, ecological attack, Bennett's woman in the foreground similarly wards off Pan's pipes, resisting a seductive musical attack on her body that might obstruct her attainment of nirvana, of liberation from the confines of her temporary and constricting predicament as a black woman in an Anglo-West.

What Bennett's Buddhist depiction of woman has in common, above all, with story of the Buddha, and with Hurston's and Bonner's images of women as enlightened Buddhas, is an over-riding theme of individuals in search of personal and communal, universal healing. Hurston, Bonner, and Bennett certainly present women in search of their own liberation, but what makes their aesthetic visions unique (but common among the three of them), is the deep individual strength they project outward in the face of social, cultural, and moral adversity. In this way, these women's quests, their respective searches for wholeness and fulfillment amid societal fragmentation and ethical depravity makes them uniquely Buddhist writers. Moreover, they not only attain enlightening perspectives of the world by gathering women (readers and fellow writers) around their awakened hopes for peace, but also, they all fervently view nature as a prime agent in the process of female healing.

In their strong strivings out of faith and their wise struggles through life, Hurston, Bonner, and, in particular, Bennett, are African American, female writers calling each other, and the nature that is the agent in their healing, to witness their enlightenment. Their work thus resonates with readers not only as a literature of spiritual dimension, but also as a literature of sacred proportion. Their texts, like the iconographic 9th century Indian sculpture of Buddha Calling on Earth to Witness, exemplify the way human beings can use art to make a claim about the capacity that each one of us possesses to attain enlightenment amid turmoil and struggle with the assistance of nature and deep internal courage. In this particular sculpture, the Buddha, like Bennett's heroine in Pan's seductive woods, displays the ability to express calm in the face of distraction from enlightenment. This 9th century sculpture is especially evocative because it depicts the power of the Buddha to resist Mara's (the devil's) attacks (outlined earlier by Strong) and remain poised under duress.

Figure 2: Buddha Calling on Earth to Witness, Pala Period, 9th century.


Unlike Bennett's markedly Buddhist illustration for the March 1924 cover of The Crisis, the Buddha's hands in the sculpture above, are highly visible, suggesting that, perhaps, Bennett sought to convey an image of woman as Buddha in the process of attaining enlightenment. More specifically, the rendering of hands in this sculpture is crucial because when the Buddha reaches his right hand down to touch the earth, it signifies that the earth is "witness" to his enlightenment, to his achievement of nirvana. The Buddha's right hand in this sculpture falls languid over his right knee, delicately, in an almost feminine manner, as his fingertips ever so slightly graze the earth beneath his body. Interestingly, his eyes are pointed in the direction of the earth, perhaps gazing into an earth, a terrain that serves as a mirror, as it does for Hurston's Janie Sparks, of inner peace and harmony. Is it possible that this downward glance might also point itself toward the devilish Mara, (a symbol, Bonner and Bennett would likely agree, of oppression and negation of enlightenment) now defeated and dwelling as a soul in the space of the underworld

It might also be that the touch of the earth allows the Buddha to enter a state of tranquility and harmony, an eternal "Om" of universal bliss where his attention is always pointed down into the coarse and earthy reality of the present, of life here and now, down away from the distractedness and impermanence of the world at eye-level. (Janie Sparks might also be imagined as looking down on the world from an elevated position above the horizon at the end of Their Eyes). The Buddha's right hand in the sculpture is also an antithesis to the open, raised left hand which sits at the middle of his being, just below his stomach. The implication here is one of harmony and fluidity, a fluidity of being much like the one that Bonner seeks, and then attains, by the end of "On Being Young." Because the Buddha is literally "in touch," in physical concert with the earth, the rest of his being, like Bennett's woman in the woods, is at one with itself./herself The left hand poised at the center of his seated body evokes composure, grace, balance, and openness, as if to accept an offering from Nature or from the gods. These are precisely the sentiments, the visions Hurston, Bonner, and Bennett evoke in their Buddhist inflected Harlem Renaissance texts.

Conclusion: Buddhism in African American Women's Literature, Art, and Community: The Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance

Throughout this essay, I have aimed to elucidate the ways that a Buddhist perspective of women's literature of the Harlem Renaissance might enrich an already capacious discourse taking place surrounding one of America's most dynamic literary, artistic, historical, and cultural movements of the twentieth century. My hope in this essay was to expand an already wide academic lens, to adjust the focus of the lens to include a view of the Harlem Renaissance period from a perspective of Eastern spirituality, principally Buddhist in nature. The Harlem Renaissance period, catalyzed by a Great Migration of African Americans moving from the North to the South after WWI, opens itself generously to a reading rich in spiritual and philosophical purport precisely because so many African Americans at the inception of the movement were not only literally looking for new "homes" in the North, but also because so many African Americans (as well as immigrants and returning soldiers) in the first quarter of the twentieth century were looking for purpose and meaning in a world that seemed to obscure answers to exigent questions about race, gender, and class in the United States.

Adopting a Buddhist lens through which to view Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Marita O. Bonner's "On Being Young—a Woman—and Colored," and Gwendolyn Bennett's illustration, "The Pipes of Pan," enables us to begin answering some of these complex and problematic questions that permeate African American consciousness before, during, and even after the Harlem Renaissance period. These bold, authentic, artful, open-minded, and globally and spiritually conscious female writers allow us to initiate a conversation that might allow for liberation from a physical and mental enslavement so pervasive within African American experience. They also paradoxically, utilize the silence, peace and tranquility quintessential to Buddhism, in order to awaken the voices of women from years of silence, from years of rendering black women verbally mute. Furthermore, Hurston, Bonner and Bennett allow African American women after WWII, and women today, to commence new dialogues about the healing power of Buddhism in African American women's, and men's lives. It might be important to note, that though this paper does not shed light on the effects of Buddhism or Eastern spirituality on black male literary consciousness, further conversation about Buddhism and African American male experience might enrich and enliven the conversation about collective black experience in the twentieth century. Countee Cullen's Buddhist poem "Nothing Endures," Jean Toomer's book of mystical aphorisms, Essentials, Richard Wright's collection of Zen-influenced Haiku (written by Wright during his bout with illness in a studio apartment in Paris), and Charles Johnson's fiction and numerous personal interviews would all serve as plausible entrees into such a Masculinist-Buddhist discourse.

There is, however, sound evidence that the Buddhist legacy incited by Hurston, Bonner, and Bennett has been continued by writers like Alice Walker and Jan Willis looking at black female authors before them as wise Buddhas in a world replete with endless political and metaphysical questions about healing the wounds of African American experience, some of which have left noticeable scars. Walker and Willis, like Hurston, Bonner, and Bennett before them, do the work of what Melanie Harris of Texas-Christian University calls "the recovery of the Womanist-self through the meditative space that Buddhism affords (67). "While Buddhism is often equated with dissolving the self," Harris astutely points out, the Texas-Christian professor and scholar claims that she, along with Walker and Willis, "would argue that Buddhist contemplative practices can be seen and experienced as…self-love and self-care necessary to sustain activists' work for compassionate justice" (67). What is at "work," here, from Harris' perspective, is very much at work within the female literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston, Bonner and Bennett are not only doing the work of gender, race, environmentalism, and spiritual liberation—they are doing the "necessary" work of "compassionate" social "justice." Arguing for the sustained value of Buddhist meditation, Harris goes on to suggest that meditation "invites one to overcome oppression and transition the self and the community" (68). Though Harris is refers here to meditation in a literal sense, as in meditative practice, we might consider her perspective to more broadly include meditation as a way of seriously, introspectively, and harmoniously caring for the world through the medium of self-love that Hurston, Bonner, and Bennett vigorously express and vehemently enact through their texts.

Furthermore, in citing Alice Walker's own views on what Harris calls "the practice of self-love and mindfulness," she fails not to mention that it was Alice Walker searched "through tall Southern grass in the heat of the day to find the unmarked grave of Zora Neale Hurston…" and to pay it mindful respect (69). Harris includes this narrative detail to suggest, as I wish to suggest here in conclusion, that what Buddhism has to teach, what Walker's action of homage has to instruct, is the Buddhist compassion one is capable of performing while one is alive on earth. As Walker observes (by way Harris) in her essay "Gifts of Power," about the nineteenth century shaker Rebecca Jackson, "Jackson's wisdom," her "leap of faith follows her own spirit, or her divine self," reveals that "resurrection occurs in life, not after death" (69). Walker's poignant remarks here (and fortunately Harris brings them to our attention), reflect perhaps the most significant truth that Buddhism can offer the community of African American women, and Americans on the whole; this is the ever-so-important truth that the life we have right here, right now, is the "gift" we've been given. To become awakened to this fact, it embrace what is most human in ourselves in the face of historical cruelty and oppression Likewise, Jan Willis, another more contemporary African American writer (whom I quoted in the second epigraph at the beginning of this paper) agrees with Walker, and with scholar Melanie Harris, that "Meditation offers a path toward self-care"; however, Willis also believes something deeply valuable about what "Buddhist studies" can mean for African American women (writers). She "encourages us," Harris believes, "to be willing to sit with suffering long enough to see it transformed into deep compassion" (71). It is through deep meditation, then, by living through suffering, that pain can emit beauty.

There is, finally, a great deal that can be offered to us by meditating upon the confluence of Buddhist studies and African American studies, and more specifically, African American women's literature of the Harlem Renaissance. The two flow like streams of compassion into one another and open a trans-cultural discourse replete with unforeseen revelatory possibilities. As Martine Batchelor remarks in the closing chapter of The Spirit of the Buddha,

Although the Buddha did not see any obstacles preventing women from attaining awakening…over time the culture of patriarchy in which Buddhism found itself did influence its egalitarian tendency and the supremacy of men over women developed. Modern times {however} with access to secular education, human rights, and remunerated work, allowed women to become more equal and respected in their societies and the same happened in Buddhism, East and West. (150-151)

Batchelor's words are an affirmation, a celebration of the progress made, both within the spiritual and scholarly practice of Buddhism, and within the progress made by women writers of color, East and West. Thanks be to the wise, peaceful, healing words of Hurston and Bonner, to the strong and serene lines of compassion Bennett draws through "crisis." Let us "sit" now, with our past "suffering," in an eternal wake of enlightened hope.

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