Jan Willis, PhD: Buddhism and Activism, public talk

17sep18:0021:00Jan Willis, PhD: Buddhism and Activism, public talk


(Tisdag) 18:00 - 21:00 CET(GMT+02:00)

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”Buddhism and Activism”, Public Talk by Professor Jan Willis

How do we – Buddhists or non-Buddhists – engage with practice, with others and ourselves, in order to create a more compassionate, just and fair world? How can we recognize and transform our biases to enact the principle taught by the Dalai Lama –  that all beings are exactly the same; not wanting suffering and all wanting happiness? How can we contribute to a better world?


Being a Bodhisattva in the Modern World

In this talk, Professor Jan Willis will discuss how to apply the traditional Buddhist teachings on bodhichitta to life in our modern world. What does it mean to be a bodhisattva today? 

– Buddha was an activist the day he stood up and started to give teachings, says Professor Willis.

Buddha Shakyamuni was a democrat and radical for more than 2500 years ago: everyone was welcome to his community, besides monks and laymen, he allowed people of all casts and nuns and laywomen to join. Still after 2600 years, this is radical, the cast-system is still existing, and womens role is still under a discussion on all parts of the world.


Life of Professor Jan Willis

Jan Willis grew up in deep South of US, Alabama as the daughter of a Baptist deacon and steelworker – and with the legacy of slavery. One street in her city separated the white and black neighbourhoods. The Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist hate group, even burned a cross outside Willis’s house, as she crouched inside, expecting to die.

At the age of 15 she marched with Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr in Birmingham Alabama. Dr King had found Birmingham as the most segregated city in entire US. During six weeks they had silent non-violent marches on downtown, and during six weeks they were surrounded with hatred.
Dr King, in order to keep the groups calm, told her and others: “They are not only what you see in front of you, they are more, even they go home and kiss the baby and have family-life”. This was a real Buddhist teaching , says Jan Willis, decades after.

This was the time of 60´s, time of the non-violent Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War – and hippies travelling to East.  Dr King was in contact with Tic Nhat Than, and Jan Willis also became interested in Buddhism.

Meeting Lama Yeshe changed everything. Buddhism helped to heal the wounds from racism

When she graduated from the college, Willis was considering two options: go to Nepal and study Buddhism or join the Black Panthers and fight for black rights – ”peace or a piece,” as she puts it.
She chose the peace, went to Nepal and met Lama Yeshe at Kopan Monastery in 1969, becoming one of his earliest students.

And everything in her life changed. Buddhism taught her compassion and self-acceptance. Lama Yeshe encouraged her academic studies, and her self confidence. It led her to her job, teaching Buddhism at Wesleyan University. And it even taught her how to make peace with the Baptist church of her childhood.

”Buddhist meditation taught her how to endure a slight and let it go, to pray deeply for the good of humankind, so that all may find inner peace. It’s a subtle kind of love.

”You’re aware of your common humanity,” she says. ”You want them to avoid suffering.” This realization enabled her, after more than 30 years away, to finally feel at home in her father’s Baptist church.  And it leads her to call herself today, by that rarest of appellations–an African-American Baptist Buddhist”. ~Newsweek article about Professor Willis 2005



Buddhist Scholar, Teacher, and Practitioner


Jan Willis, Ph.D, has had a distinguished career as a scholar and teacher of Buddhism spanning fifty years. She first met Tibetan Buddhists in India and Nepal at the age of nineteen and went on to earn degrees in Philosophy and Indic and Buddhist Studies from Cornell and Columbia Universities.

She has taught at UC Santa Cruz, the University of Virginia and at Wesleyan University and now –in retirement–teaches part-time at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA.

Her areas of expertise are Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist saints’ lives, Women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and Race and she has published works in all of these areas.

Coming from Birmingham, AL. she has begun leading workshops which explore Race and Racism through a Buddhist Lens.

Her memoir ”Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist. An African American Woman´s Spiritual Journey” was published 2001.


TIME Magazine named Professor Willis one of six ”spiritual innovators for the new millennium.”(Dec 2000).
She was a recipient of Wesleyan University’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. (2003)
Newsweek’s ”Spirituality in America” issue included a profile of her and (Sept 2005),
Ebony magazine named Willis one of its ”Power 150” most influential African Americans (May 2007).

READ MORE about Jan Willis: https://www.janwillis.org/awards/

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  • Jan Willis Ph.D.

    Jan Willis Ph.D.

    Jan Willis grew up in the Jim Crow South, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign, and escaped the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama only to face racism of another kind while enrolled at an Ivy League university. Jan persevered and earned her BA and MA in Philosophy from Cornell University, and her PhD in Indic and Buddhist Studies from Columbia University. When she studied abroad in India and Nepal, she met the Tibetan Lama Thubten Yeshe who became her mentor for fifteen years, and one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in the West. Through his guidance, Jan learned to face down the demons of her past and embrace her whole identity—Black, Baptist, and Buddhist. She has studied and taught Buddhism for fifty years.

    In December of 2000, Time magazine named Willis one of six “spiritual innovators for the new millennium.” In 2003, she was a recipient of Wesleyan University’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Newsweek magazine’s “Spirituality in America” issue in 2005 included a profile of Willis. In its May 2007 edition, Ebony magazine named Willis one of its “Power 150” most influential African Americans.

    Jan is currently Professor of Religion Emerita at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and Visiting Professor of Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. She is the author of numerous essays and books, including The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation; On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi; Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist; and Dharma Matters: Women, Race and Tantra. To learn more, please visit her website: janwillis.org.

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