Saturday, April 13, 2013

Interview with Meikle Paschal: The Black Buddhist and his spiritual journey

Left  Doug Holder   Right  Meikle Paschal   at the Somerville Community Access TV studios.

Interview with Meikle Paschal: The Black Buddhist and his spiritual journey

With Doug Holder

  When Meikle Paschal arrived at his first meeting of the Bagel Bards at the Au Bon Pain in Davis Square, Somerville, he was the only black man in a sea of white, pasty faces. But he did not seem fazed--he weaved through the crowd like he was at home at the joint—striking up conversations, and cracking the dry air with his wit.  30 or 40 years ago this may have not been the case.   Paschal , a native of the mean streets of Roxbury, was a self-described Angry Black Man.  He was uncomfortable in his own skin, fighting the pressure of a racist society that he felt kept the cards stacked against him. Now, in his 60’s, he is a very different character.  He found his way through the practice of Buddhism, and is transformed into a rather contented  man in the  autumn of his years, as  Frank Sinatra once sang.   Today he is a  respected educator with the pedigree of a PhD, and a home in the tony suburb of Lexington, Mass.  I interviewed Paschal about his new memoir The Black Buddhist: A Spiritual Journey (Ibbetson Street Press) on my Somerville Community Access TV show  Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: Meikle you were in the tradition of the Angry Young Man some decades ago. This literary tradition , and this dynamic in society, goes way back and of course it involves the working class railing against the system. And you added another factor on the plate—you are a black man. What specifically were you angry about?

Meikle Paschal:  Actually I don’t know what I was angry about. It was sort of a persona you kept so no one would bother you. If I looked like a pushover—even girls would come up to me and challenge me to a fight. So I had to have this edgy, urban demeanor so that people would  leave me alone. When you are a young person and in that domain it’s ok—it serves a purpose. But when you finish school and go out to the workplace, and still have that angry edge, it limits you. If you are looking for a job people label you as an angry black man. From that image all kinds of generalizations get passed on. People don’t get to know you. They just tread lightly around you.

DH: You embraced Nicene Buddhism.  Why did you go there –did western religion fail you?

MP: I had an experience when I was quite young. Probably around 14. I had my first sexual encounter in a hallway. My family members were practicing Catholics. So I started feeling guilty and went to Confession. I made the mistake of saying I committed adultery.  And this priest almost started to come through the screen to get at me. He told me never to see the girl again. But she lived upstairs so I wondered how that was going to be possible. I started thinking something was wrong about this. I was on may way out. It was a long trail. For a long while I went to Atheism—you know when you are dead you are dead. After I grew up and grew more accepting of the ways of the world, I realized that I didn’t quite know what was going on. Then I had this experience. It was with my mother-in-law. I  had stayed with her awhile to calm down after completing my dissertation. One day she fell down  in the front yard and never recovered. It turns out that she was riddled with cancer. She died shortly after. One night after this I went to sleep, not thinking about here or anything. In the middle of the night she came to me  just as clearly as you sitting here. She sat at the edge of my bed and told me that everything was going to be all right.  It was such a beautiful experience. I cried; I called my mother and tried to get some understanding. And I began to realize there is more going on in this world that I can understand.  And this lead me to the path of reading. And in my reading I feel into what the Buddha actually said. It lead me to some thoughts I had during my own life. I saw them clearly articulated now. I read even more and I sought out some people who were practicing Buddhists in my family. I became ready to embrace it. It has become a way of life. And this way of life has diminished the Angry Black Man persona. The meditation, etc.. has made me feel more at home in the universe.

DH: Does the angry side ever rear its ugly head?

MP: Every so often I can slide. It is under control. It is relegated to the lower domains. When you become harmonious with the world this stuff doesn't come up so often.

DH: But sometimes isn't it a good thing to get good and pissed off?

MP: It doesn't work for me. Being a black man in this society, if I get angry, it would be a negative thing. Besides it makes me feel sick. I try to let things stay quiet.

DH: You talked about these incidences of foreshadowing in your life--in which someone would say something in passing for instance and it would be of great imporance. Do we often miss these signs?

MP: Well, I do feel we all follow a path. I have had occasions where I could of gone one way instead of the other. When I went down to the Induction Center during the Vietnam War I was very despondent because I thought I was going to be sent to the jungles to die. As I was coming home from the Center I just happened I looked up and I saw a sign for the U Mass Boston. And for some unknown reason I went in. I found the recruiters; they took me in; and I was accepted into college. And being accepted into college-- I am sure-- saved my life. I have had experiences like this in my life and I was able to embrace them. Your path unfolds before you. You have a few choices. You can stay stuck or you can evolve. The universe gives you information to hear; it is up to you to embrace it or not. That is the message I am trying to display in the book.

DH: Does your Buddhist practice manifests itself in your college teaching?

MP: My teaching is all about my Buddhist practice.  I teach Philosophy, English and Composition. I do tell my students that if they do have self-confidence, start a  regime, that the energy will flow. I don't get angry with them. I am accessible. It makes for a more harmonious classroom. We both learn and benefit.

DH: You use quotes throughout the book by Buddha. One is " What we think, we become."

MP: I truly believe this. It took a long time to believe in myself--to not be afraid that all these things were going to be taken from me. I have relinquished fear. I think of myself as a worthy person. I love being a calmer state of being.

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