Be Willing to Get Woke - Interview with Dr. Jan Willis


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Dr. Jan Willis, renowned scholar and teacher of Buddhism, talks about race and racism through a Buddhist lens. She shares stories about growing up with racism in Birmingham, Alabama; marching with Dr. Martin Luther King there in 1963; brushes with the Black Panthers; her experience as one of the first Westerners to dive deeply into Tibetan Buddhism; and how we can compassionately combat systemic racism and Anti-Blackness today.

Dr. Willis has a distinguished career as a scholar and teacher of Buddhism that spans fifty years. She first met Tibetan Buddhists in India and Nepal when she was nineteen and went on to earn degrees in Philosophy and Indic and Buddhist Studies from Cornell and Columbia Universities.
Dr. Willis has taught Buddhist Studies and Philosophy at UC Santa Cruz, the University of Virginia and Wesleyan University. Now in retirement, she teaches part-time at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia and leads workshops exploring Race and Racism through a Buddhist Lens.
In her academic and popular books and essays, Dr. Willis writes with moving precision on Tibetan Buddhism, the lives of Buddhist saints, Women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and Race. Her latest book is the compelling essay collection Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra.
Dr. Willis’ unique personal story is captured in her memoir Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. In crisp, moving words, Dreaming Me shares Dr. Willis’ experience as a Black woman raised in Birmingham, Alabama who suffered regular neighborhood raids by the Ku Klux Klan and who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King there in 1963. Her story takes incredible turns in brushes with the Black Panthers and as one of the first westerners to dive deeply into Tibetan Buddhist study and practice.
Dr. Willis’ work has been praised by TIME Magazine as one of six “spiritual innovators for the new millennium,” and by Ebony Magazine, who named her one of its “Power 150” most influential African Americans. We spoke with Dr. Willis by video conference from Georgia last month.
Be Willing to Get Woke - Interview with Dr. Jan Willis

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