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Dr. Charles Johnson’s Review of Mindful of Race

When Ruth King contacted me about writing a review for her book I had to pause when I read a quote she included in her cover letter, one I’d never seen, by former South African President Nelson Mandela. Here it is: When we can sit in the face of insanity or dislike and be free from the need to make it different, then we are free.

This quote is rich in Buddhist and just human wisdom, because the Buddhist experience is just the human experience. Yet Mandela’s hard-won insight offers a challenge to those of us who have a spiritual practice. The fact that Ruth King selected this quote when she introduced herself to me was a signal that I was corresponding with a very special person, someone who had over decades of study, teaching, and Dharma practice grasped the true, radical goal of the Buddhist path which is, first and foremost, our attainment of liberation, which is a freedom each and every one of us possesses the power to achieve.

Then when I read Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism From The Inside Out, I knew beyond all doubt that Ruth King was not just a dedicated and compassionate teacher but also that she has a unique gift for interpreting the 2600-year-old wisdom found in Buddhism into concrete and clear terms that make the Dharma accessible to Americans in general and black Americans in particular. For example, she states that “Mindfulness is the practice of present moment awareness with an understanding that what we are aware of has a nature or what is known as the Three Characteristics of Existence.” In Pali literature, these characteristics or marks for everything are called Trilakshana and expressed in the concise formulation anitya, duhkha, an?tman, where anitya means that every phenomenon, even thought, is conditional, changing and impermanent; duhkha means that this lack of anything we can cling or be attached to leads to the experience of suffering; and an?tman refers to the realization that there can be no enduring or substantive self. In her memorable, perfect restatement of these ancient truths, King writes that “I have a simple mantra for remembering these three characteristics: Life is not Personal, Permanent or Perfect.”

King is brilliant when discussing the meaning of mindfulness, and especially trenchant when she describes Metta (or lovingkindness) practice, the peace that arises from sitting and walking meditation and, of perhaps greatest importance, the techniques for unraveling the obscuring stories and narratives (interpretations) that have been painted by our past race, class, gender, religious and cultural experiences and those of others over our immediate experience of the present moment. Stories and explanatory models that Bhikku Bodhi once referred to as the “conceptual paint” —views, thoughts, emotions and beliefs—that prevents us from seeing clearly right here, right now whatever is before us with the freshness of a Beginner’s Mind. In King’s Chapter Nine, “Understanding the Cycle of Misperception,” she outlines in a compelling way the methods that lead to what I call egoless listening and epistemological humility when we have the courage to “take ‘me’ out of the equation” of our daily experiences. Doing so,” she writes, can free us “even in the midst of horrible circumstances.”

In order to remember this practice, Ruth King suggests an acronym called RAIN. The letters stand for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. In other words, we recognize our thoughts and feelings as they arise. We don’t push them away. Or judge ourselves for having them. They are simply what the mind constantly produces. So we allow them to come and go. But we critically investigate them, too. We know they are not personal, permanent or perfect. As King says, in the practice of mindfulness, “we are allowing the unfolding moment to be what it is without interference; without judgments, interpretations, preferences, or resistance; without trying to make it other than it naturally is at this moment.” This is something Nelson Mandela apparently learned how to do well. However, “allowing is not the same as condoning experience.” Rather, it is a “Discernment (that) allows us to identify those mind states you want to support and those you want to let go.” One result of this is that “We become curious about our views and the deeper roots of our perceptions, and who we are without them.”

I could go on and on about Ruth King’s book. I think it is an important addition to the growing body of literature black Americans in the 21st century are publishing to create a bridge between East and West, and heal the centuries of suffering by black people (and all Americans), which lingers on today. Her approach is revolutionary in the deepest sense because it addresses our social problems at their root, which is consciousness or the mind itself. And Mindful of Race is rich in anecdotes and examples that will, I believe, cause a reader to smile and perhaps even say, “Thank you.” One of my favorites appears when she writes, “At a ten-day insight meditation retreat, an African American woman in her early 40s whispered to me in an interview: Is it ok to be happy and peaceful?”

My guess is that Ruth King, a wise Elder, told her, “Yes, it’s ok to be happy and peaceful,” for in the Buddhist tradition happiness and freedom from suffering are guaranteed to all sentient beings as our birthright. Mindful of Race is a trustworthy guide for claiming that birthright.

Dr. Charles Johnson, Seattle, Washington ~ October 2017

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Dr. Charles Johnson is the National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage. He is also the author of Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, and Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice. He is the subject of Gary Storhoff’s Understanding Charles Johnson, and Marc Connor’s Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher.