Charles Johnson published his first novel in 1974, and in the 1980’s and 1990’s he emerged as one of the most innovative and creative African-American fiction writers of his generation. His formal experimentation, blending of eastern and western cultures, rigorous engagement with philosophy (he holds a Ph.D. in the subject), and insistence on defying all cultural expectations made him a compelling voice in American letters. A lifelong martial artist and a practicing Buddhist, Johnson has an artistic vision which is difficult to categorize—indeed, I can’t think of a comparable or exactly similar writer in the American canon, although several, notably Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, share many characteristics with Johnson. He has published four novels, three volumes of short stories, two books of philosophy, countless essays and reviews, as well as two volumes of drawings (he was a visual artist before becoming a writer, and has always maintained his fascination with the visual arts), and most recently a year-long writer’s commentary and his first children’s book (co-authored with his daughter). Now he has brought out a book, Taming the Ox, that, like Johnson’s career, defies easy categorization. Part philosophy, part social commentary, and part fiction, the book exemplifies the plenitude and variety of Johnson’s writing, and offers a particularly timely—and ultimately affirmative—insertion into the chaos that is American culture as we move further into the 21st century.
Taming the Ox is divided into three parts. The first consists of eleven formal essays that Johnson has published between 2000 and 2013. These essays have multiple themes and concerns, but they share three major areas of focus: Buddhism, or essays on the Dharma, the central teachings of the Buddha; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the status of contemporary Black America. (And all three of these areas interweave throughout the essays.) The second part of the book consists of five “Reviews and Prefaces” Johnson has written during the same period, each of which introduces or comments upon a book or books dealing with Buddhism and black America. And finally Taming the Ox concludes with six of Johnson’s short stories, published between 2007 and 2014.
The eleven essays, taken as a whole, constitute a unique and challenging approach to the crises of contemporary American culture, all seen through the lens of Johnson’s artist’s perspective. The opening essay, “Dharma and the Artist’s Eye,” really functions as a manifesto for Johnson’s artistic and social vision: it combines a focus on art and Buddhist thought, in an American and African-American context. Johnson argues that art and meditation are parallel practices—he talks of practicing “meditation through art” (7)—and he relates how in his own life Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism became “my spiritual refuge” (6) from the anger, violence, and racial polarization of the late 1960s and early 1970’s. Specifically, he argues that eastern philosophy and spiritual practice taught him that beauty precedes and transcends our inclination to dualism. This understanding has enabled Johnson to remain affirming while perceiving that in 2014 we live “in a society that was growing more and more spiritually bankrupt, culturally provincial, ideologically balkanized, yet very Eurocentric as it entered deeper into a demonstrable period of late decadence” (8).
This emphasis on our current time and place is crucial to this book: for the very next essay, “Dharma for a Dangerous Time,” further explores what philosophical concepts are adequate to our current decadent period. Here Johnson invokes King, who is everywhere in this book, as a figure who calls on us to love the other and to see the other as ourselves. Johnson states in the next essay, “The Dharma of Social Transformation,” that “our lives differ so radically and with such richness that, personally, I prefer to see the Other as a great and glorious mystery about whom I can never make any ironclad assumptions or judgments” (28). The worldview that enables us to see the other as ourselves, Johnson claims, is precisely the 26 century-old teaching of the Buddhadharma—and King’s Christian agapic love is another version of the Buddhist teaching of seeing oneself in the other. Johnson is convinced—and convincing—that the Four Noble Truths, the Five Precepts, the Eightfold Path, and the ten paramitas (perfections) that form the core of Buddhism are “time-honored blueprints for revolutionary change” (30) for both the individual and the community.
Thus, in the powerful essay “Be Peace Embodied,” Johnson explicitly combines King’s teaching with eastern thought to focus on why we should vote, and hence on the larger question of how we can relate to the lived, social world. And this is representative of so much of this book, which refuses to privilege the spiritual over the bodily, the heavenly over the earthly. Johnson states, “Samsara is Nirvana. The sacred is the profane. The everyday is the holy.” “For those following the Way,” he urges, “individual salvation is never enough; they work tirelessly for the liberation not just of men and women but all sentient beings” (38-39). The enlightened person “will listen with full empathy to the political Other, listening as carefully as they do when following their own breaths and thoughts in vipassana meditation” (39). Consequently in later essays such as “Why Buddhists Should Vote” and “Why Buddhism for Black America Now?”, Johnson formulates this spiritual and ethical teaching as an “ethical philosophy for black America” that “might relate to the civil rights movement,” for “the historical and present-day suffering experienced by black Americans creates a natural doorway into the Dharma” (70). In “Mindfulness and the Beloved Community,” he argues that Buddhism “may be the next step in our spiritual evolution toward what MLK called ‘the beloved community’” (79). It is certainly not too much to say that Johnson has emerged as the most powerful interpreter of King in our current day. From his 1998 novel Dreamer to the King-based stories in Dr. King’s Refrigerator and Other Stories to his photobiography of King to these stirring essays showing King’s continued relevance, Johnson demonstrates that the reverend is indeed “the King we need.”
If Buddhism and Christian compassion seem out of step with contemporary racial violence and disruption, Johnson counters that in fact they show the very solution to our racial ills: for “static (racial) identity is an illusion. We are constant change, reborn moment by moment. We have no nature, no essence, no self, no substance as our identity” (76). Thus only a spiritual philosophy that rejects the illusion of the self—racial, religious, sexual, or otherwise—can hope to release us from the illusion of racial difference.
This philosophical and political context is the ideal frame for understanding the works of fiction that conclude the book. These six stories are unified by their essentially comic world-view, and by their often surprising endings that depict realization or awakening. This awakening reveals the deep connections between the works of fiction and the non-fiction essays of the book.
“Prince of the Ascetics” alternates between an all-too-human story of petty jealousy and resentment, and a depiction of an ascetic monk whose renunciation of the world is astonishing. By combining these two perspectives, the story shows how both the petty narrator and the transcendent monk can at the end both become “awake” to the evils of dualism and can defeat the “I-maker.” Similarly, in “The Cynic” we see a very funny depiction of Plato, dogged by his young student Aristotle, challenged by the old cynic and ascetic, Diogenes. Eventually Plato awakens to the limitations of his dualism, his metaphysical transcendence, and his commitment to essence. At the end, he states that “I felt only wonder, humility, and innocence, and for the first time I realized I did not have to understand, but only to be” (150). This same renunciation of division and petty insistence on the self defines “Kamadhatu, a Modern Sutra,” in which a Japanese Buddhist ascetic is visited by an African-American woman seeking spiritual understanding. (The woman is clearly based on Jan Willis, whose book Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey Johnson reviews earlier in Taming the Ox). At the end the monk “saw clearly his own self-nature, and forever lost the sense of twoness” (159); and the woman similarly is awakened: “She simply bowed, pressing both brown palms together in gassho—one palm symbolizing Samsara, the other Nirvana—in a gesture of unity that perfectly mirrored Toshiro’s own” (160).
Though all the stories are comic in the sense that they are truly funny, humorous, and eager to poke fun at our human pretensions, they are primarily comic in the broadest sense, affirming the constant flux and renewal of the cosmos itself, and how human beings participate in that generous life-process despite our efforts to separate from it and confine ourselves to a linear and dualistic worldview. One of the more daring stories, “Guinea Pig,” is essentially a science fiction story about Dr. Samantha Conner, whose experiments in the “body-swap illusion” ultimately can break down “the epistemological apartheid of mind-body dualism” (173-4). Eventually the male character, Jeremy, a college English-and-philosophy major who finds Dr. Conner “so heartbreakingly beautiful [that] she makes my eyes blur” (172), participates in her experiment and switches identity with her dog. The conclusion suggests that love can overcome the most apparently fixed of boundaries—even that between species.
The final story, “The Weave,” is emblematic of all the stories, and indeed of the book as a whole. It is a crime story, concerned especially with the crime of envy and the over-valuation of external appearance. At the end, when Ieesha is arrested and taken away, she is depicted as “letting go of all of it—the inheritance of hurt, the artificial and the inauthentic, the absurdities of color and caste stained at their roots by vanity and bondage to the body—and in this evanescent moment, when even I feel as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, she has never looked more beautiful and spiritually centered to me” (191). The story ends with the crucial words that speak a benediction to this entire book, a comic affirmation that echoes that great modernist affirmation of Molly Bloom’s concluding words in Joyce’s Ulysses: “Yes, yes, yes.”
The book’s title comes from the fifth of the ten Oxherding Pictures, the ancient Zen depictions of the journey towards enlightenment, suggesting that Johnson is on his way towards his own awakening, though he acknowledges that there is still far to travel. In the book’s preface, Johnson states that he has moved through three of the four great stages or seasons of life as understood in Hindu culture. He has lived the springtime of youthful study, and the summer of young adulthood and its world of work and duty; and he has particularly immersed himself in the autumn of the householder’s devotion to family, home, and community. Now, having retired from his thirty years as a university professor, and having experienced the loss of his parents and the birth of his grandchild, Johnson describes himself as beginning to enter “the beginning of old age (winter), when the householder retires from the worldliness of the world to devote himself more fully to matters of the spirit, to knowledge (vidya) and preparation for his inevitable exit from this existence” (xi). If the bountiful offering of Taming the Ox is any indication of the work Johnson will continue to offer the world, then we can only hope that this winter will be a long season indeed.