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David Swick: Are there other Buddhist practices you do?
Alice Walker: I am so grateful to Pema Chödrön for the gift of the practice of tonglen: taking in the bad and sending out the good. She has managed to absorb and preserve and present these ancient teachings in a form that is so current. I find tonglen one of the most important practices we could receive in this time. It’s always challenging and deeply rewarding.
David Swick: You meditate, you read Pema Chödrön and Thich Nhat Hanh, you have praised the work of Jack Kornfield, you go on retreats, and yet you say in the book that you’re not a Buddhist.
Alice Walker: I’m not. The whole point of anything that is really, truly valuable to your soul, and to your own growth, is not to attach to a teacher, but rather to find out what the real deal is in the world itself. You become your own guide. The teachings can help you, but really, we’re all here with the opportunity to experience the reality of hereness. We all have that. I trust that.
David Swick: Are you concerned that if you embrace the word Buddhism, it would change the experience into something more formulaic and less alive?
Alice Walker: Yes. I’m just not interested in labels. I find all of them constrictive. They’re hard to wear. And they’re hard to wear because we’re always—hopefully—growing. Not only that, there are so many teachers in the world today of many different stripes. The world is a marvelous place of learning, from every possible direction.
David Swick: Does that make this a fortunate time to be living in?
Alice Walker: We live in the best of all times.
David Swick: Why is that?
Alice Walker: There’s so much to do! (Laughs) We are so lucky. There’s no shortage of work to do! (Laughs) There’s no excuse for anyone, in my opinion, to complain that they can’t change anything. For instance, there are millions and millions and millions of hungry children, people who don’t have clothing, people who don’t have housing, trees that are begging us to let them live, rivers that are crying out to be clean, skies that are shouting at us to let the ozone layer live. There is no end to the ways we can have full self-realization. That’s what has to happen, and that’s what this time is pointing out. This is the time to have full self-realization as an earthling. It’s time to be responsible and take charge of that. It’s also a great time because if we fail, we lose the earth.
David Swick: Is self-realization the spiritual philosophy at the center of your life and work?
Alice Walker: Self-realization is certainly up there, and of course true self-realization comes with a realization of the connectedness to all, the inseparability of the self and the all. That leads one to understand oneself as an earthling, not an American, Canadian, African, or Indian. Beyond that I realize myself as the cosmos, the universe, the whole thing. How can we not be the whole thing? (Pause) As I sit and look out at the trees, I know clearly one day that’s where I’ll be. Hallelujah!
David Swick: You touch upon so many different influences in your book: the I Ching, the Tao, meditation, yoga, and so forth. In your life and practice, does Christianity have a place?
Alice Walker: I love Jesus; I think Jesus was wonderful. However, I think he has been distorted terribly. I want to see the wizardry of Jesus restored. I want to feel his dancing quality and his joyfulness. It’s a terrible thing that they have left him in that tortured, naked condition, which is bound to frighten most children. Just imagine if he were depicted like the Buddha. I love the way the Buddha goes through all his changes and he’s basically very happy. Suffering is not the end-all in life. It is a part of it, and then we rise above it, we work through it, we transform it. Jesus did that.
David Swick: You write that “heaven is a verb.” Can you use it in a sentence?
Alice Walker: In looking for places to write novels, I’ve ended up with houses in Mexico and Hawaii. I rent them out to people on a sliding scale depending on need. I’ve created a little booklet about them, and in there I talk about being in Hawaii and “heavening on the beach in sight of a six-pack?” Isn’t that good? (Laughs) Are we there?
David Swick: You talk about grandmothers as a source of wisdom and power. Is this something you’ve recently come to understand, or have you long had a connection to the power of a grandmother?
Alice Walker: My maternal grandmother died when I was two, and the other one had been murdered when my father was a boy, but I had a strong connection with my step-grandmother, who did give me unconditional love. As time went on, though, I saw the damage to the feminine that patriarchy imposes, and I understood that it’s often the old woman— the grandmother, with all of that accumulated wisdom and compassion—who is depressed.
She is depressed because she sees things so clearly, and she’s lost her fear of speaking. We need her. We are not going to get anywhere without her, so we might as well go and start liberating all those nursing homes, and calling home, and getting our grandmothers back with us, and asking them to leave the sitcoms, and get them to come out from in front of the TV and give us some guidance, some of the understanding that they have gained over all these decades. Sadly, many of them have been anaesthetized, but many of them have not. They’ve just been silent.
David Swick: Do you see people being anaesthetized as a big problem?
Alice Walker: It’s huge! That’s what television is for. That’s what all these Game Boys and Palm Pilots, and all of these whatever-you-call-them gadgets are for. I feel we became gadgetized as part of the corporate takeover of the world. Everyone was either looking into their hand, or into their TV set or their computer, and basically missed how our lives were being stolen by very greedy people who would rather have a lot of money than have community.
David Swick: Do you see our obsession with security as part of the anesthetizing?
Alice Walker: We need security, but it cannot come without community. How can you have security without community? You could have all the chain-link fences, and all of the gates, and all of the helicopters flying over your house you could possibly afford, but if you had trusting neighbors, people who really cared about you, you’d be much more safe.
David Swick: In the book, you say that it is time for the right hand to know what the left hand is doing. What do you mean by that?
Alice Walker: Many people live with two sides of themselves out of touch with each other. They complain about paying their taxes but don’t complain about what their taxes actually buy, like cluster bombs. A million of these bombs, originally supplied by the U.S. government, were left in Lebanon. Children will come and pick them up, and they will blow up in their faces. Then you have all these maimed and dying children. But since your right hand, which wrote the check for the taxes, has learned not to care about the left hand, which has actually sent this off to the IRS and the government and the military, you pretend you are innocent. Well, you’re not. That’s what I mean.
Of course, I know how difficult it can be to become fully aware and bear responsibility, and even though I figure there’s very little I can do to actually stop the war, I feel like I can make every effort to be aware. Not to be aware is very soul-shredding. People might say, “I didn’t know they were making tanks big enough to level people’s houses.” Well, they should know that. You may not be able to dismantle the tank, or even stop paying for the tank, but you can know that’s what is happening.