Professor Jan Willis of Wesleyan University, who has been named one of Time Magazine’s Six Spiritual Innovators for the New Millennium, visited Milton on Wednesday as a speaker for the Class of 1952’s Endowment for Religious Understanding. Ms. Willis is a professor of Tibetan Buddhism and the author of several books.
Her opening remarks to students and faculty at Wednesday’s assembly invited the audience to join her in a Buddhist peace prayer. She recited, “May I be free from danger. May you be free from danger. May the world be free from danger. May we all have the courage to choose peace.” Ms. Willis then recalled how her experience growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement was one that profoundly impacted her and ultimately led her toward the non-violent ways of the Buddhist monks. She said, “As a tenth grader I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and that was what showed me the power of non-violence and the triumph of marching with like-minded people. I learned that violence only begets violence. Hatred only begets hatred. What happens afterwards?”
After graduating from Cornell University, where she at one point joined an armed protest to demand a black-studies program, Ms. Willis felt she only had two choices: join the Black Panthers, or go to Nepal to live and study with 60 monks in a Tibetan monastery. She decided to leave the tumultuous conditions at home in search of inner and outer peace. She has said that in finding this peace, “meditation is the path. You don’t have to accept [Buddhist] dogma. You just have to spend time on the cushion.”
The philosophical concept she explained to students, as an approach to our complex world, is “the ethics of inter-relatedness.” After speaking to the Milton community Ms. Willis answered questions and met with students and faculty in Straus Library. Her recent memoir is titled, Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey.