While completing her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Cornell University in the 1960s, Jan Willis found herself pulled in two directions: on the one hand, having lived in fear of the Ku Klux Klan where she grew up in Alabama, she was drawn to the revolutionary politics of the Black Panthers; on the other hand, after traveling to Nepal in her junior year, she was taken with the possibility of learning more about Tibetan Buddhism. How does one decide which values to embrace? How does one decide which tradition to claim as one’s own? How does one decide between becoming a Black Panther or a Buddhist? These are the questions that have animated Willis’s life.

Having resolved in the end to follow the contemplative path, Willis returned to a monastery in Nepal, where she found herself the only woman among sixty monks being trained in Tibetan Buddhism. And now, some thirty years later, after completing her doctorate at Columbia in Indic and Buddhist Studies, Willis is a professor of religion and the Walter A. Crowell Professor of the Social Sciences at Wesleyan university. As a scholar and as a practitioner, Willis has committed herself to making the value of Buddhism more evident to people of all races. As the passages from Dreaming Me included here demonstrate, Willis believes that this spiritual practice has much to offer those who seek peace in troubled times, particularly African Americans trying to find relief from the despair and rage that are the legacy of slavery in the United States. Willis remains attracted to the contemplative life because, as she puts it, “Buddhism is a come-and-see model. Meditation is the path. You don’t have to accept dogma. You have to spend time on the cushion.”

To this day, Willis credits her time at Cornell with having changed her life. “It was as if [MacLeod] reached down into the Jim Crow South and liberated me,” she said. “I know how different my life could be if it had not been for that.”

Personal website:

Wesleyan Faculty Website

Other websites:




The Diamond Light of the Eastern Dawn: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation.
On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi.
Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (Editor, and contributor of two of six, essays).
Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition
Dreaming Me: An African American Baptist-Buddhist Journey. New York: Riverhead Books.,