Buddhism, Racism and Activism: A Public Talk with Professor Jan Willis

The Black Lives Matter movement, which has become a global rallying cry against racism and police brutality, has shined a light on some of the most uncomfortable and darkest aspects of our history, our society, and ourselves.

When we hear calls for the end of racism, violence, and division, we are left with uncomfortable questions: Can racism, especially systemic racism, really be conquered? Regardless of our race, what are our own biases? Are we doing enough to combat racism, especially while sitting on the meditation cushion? And if we take part in activism, are we getting sucked into the anger, stereotyping, and divisiveness that we are supposedly fighting against?

Professor Jan Willis, one of the earliest American scholar-practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and Professor Emerita of Religion at Wesleyan University, will help us explore these difficult questions. She will draw upon not only her decades of Buddhist practice and scholarship but also her personal journey of healing the traumas of racism: growing up in the Jim Crow south, witnessing cross-burnings on her lawn, and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She will share insights on how the Buddha’s teachings are deeply relevant today to counter the racism and bitter divisiveness we face, and how wisdom and compassion for all beings (regardless of race, occupation, and personal history), can heal ourselves and our communities.

We are thrilled to host Professor Willis, who is beloved for her wisdom, joy, humor, and kindness.


Resources mentioned during the talk can be found here

About the Speaker

Jan Willis, Ph.D. is an author, activist, scholar, professor, and long-time Buddhist practitioner. TIME magazine named her as one of six “spiritual innovators for the new millenium”, and Ebony called her one of its “Power 150” most influential African-Americans.

Dr. Willis is Professor Emerita of Religion at Wesleyan University and now Visiting Professor of Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. She received her B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy from Cornell University, and her Ph.D. in Indic and Buddhist Studies from Columbia University. She is the author of The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation (1972), On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi (1979), Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition (1995); and the editor of Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (1989). 

Additionally, she has published numerous articles and essays on various topics in Buddhism—Buddhist meditation, hagiography, women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and race. Her best-known work is her personal memoir, Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. 

Dr. Willis is one of Lama Yeshe’s earliest Western disciples and sees him as one of her root spiritual mentors. She grew up in the Jim Crow South of 1950s and 1960s and took part in the Civil Rights movement. While traveling through Asia in the early 1970s, she met Lama Yeshe and discovered a path to healing the wounds of racism: “[Buddhism] has helped me in real ways to find what I was looking for as a young person in a world that was violent,” she explained. “It showed me how to locate deep wounds that racism caused in my early life … and having found them, how to heal them.”