Barbershop Dharma

Original art by Susan Morningstar

Original art by Susan Morningstar

For a lot of folks, knowing the Bible is about inspiration and faith. But for some of us, it’s about survival.

It’s getting on in the afternoon as I step into the Friendly Barber Shop here in Carrboro, a small town a little ways down the road from the University of North Carolina. As I sit down to wait, I glance over the magazine rack filled with issues of Gun and Ammo and Hunting Magazine. Gun and Ammo is extolling the virtues of the thirty-ought-six; all the covers feature gigantic firearms aimed at the reader. Hunting promises tips on how to stalk a giant mule. I’m a former subscriber to Field and Stream, but even I can’t imagine why anyone would want to stalk a humongous jackass. I picture Robert Shaw from Jaws rolling up his pants leg, pointing to a semi-circle of badly healed welts: “Aye matey, forget about sharks. This is the real deal. See that there? Giant mule. Nastiest critter on God’s green earth.”

There are three men sitting next to me, and two others are getting their hair cut in the barbers’ chairs. Another man comes in with two young boys. There’s no sign outside, but it’s understood that this is a gendered space. Men get their hair trimmed here at the barbershop—women go down the street to the salon. Maybe it’s racialized too. Looking around, I notice that everyone in here is white, and as I think about it, I can’t recall ever seeing a black or Latino person in here, even though people of various races amble slowly by in the heat outside. All of this makes me aware that I’m violating a third, unspoken law of admittance to a place like this. I slip the beads off from around my wrist and into my pocket, out of sight. No sense making waves.

One of the customers pays and leaves, and a barber calls out for me. I leave my bag and stroll over to the big chair. The barber is about forty, with a bright pink complexion and short-cropped sandy hair. “I hope you’re doing fine today,” he says as I sit down. I suppose I am. We discuss how I want my hair cut—real short, off the ears, off the neck. “Hey, you got a sticker on your back,” he says. Visions of a “kick me” sign flash through my mind, but turns out it’s only a tag left over from the store. This is the first time I’ve worn this shirt since I got it at Wal-Mart, I explain, and we get a good chuckle out of it.

“Where’re you from?” he asks as he starts working a razor over the side of my head. I was raised in New England by Texan parents, so my accent is hard for most people to place—but it’s easy for a North Carolinian to tag as “not from around here.” “Chapel Hill,” I say, eyes closed to keep falling hair out. That’s as true as other answers I might’ve picked. “I’ve lived around here for years. Used to work down the street at the InterFaith Council. We run the soup kitchen.”

We’re quiet for a minute, but I can sense he’d like to chat. A haircut is a moment of intimacy between strangers, where bodies meet and are reshaped, one of the only times a man is able to touch another man without the threat of danger.

“It’s been two months since my last cut,” I say. “I was down in Texas visiting my family for Christmas. Do you know I was getting my hair cut, and the lady asked me where I live, and when I said ‘North Carolina,’ she said ‘Oh, you live in the North’!”

This gets the anticipated laugh. “I guess everything really is relative,” I add. “When you live in Houston there’s an awful lot of North.”

After another minute, the barber asks me what I do, as brown hair falls in clumps into my lap. I know from years of living in the South that this is where the dance begins. I’ve got choices to make. Decline his offer, or follow him out onto the floor. I already know where each choice will lead. “Right now I’m an instructor at NC State,” I say after considering my reply. “I teach religion.”

There’s a pause as he reflects on this. Finally, very seriously, he asks, “Would you say that teaching religion has strengthened your faith?”

Has it? I think for a moment. His Christian vocabulary needs a little internal translation before I can decide—faith isn’t quite how I think of my religion. But at least now I’m clear about the terms under which our conversation will be conducted. “Yes,” I say at last. And it’s true, in its way. “Learning about the different religions is interesting, it helps you understand other people better.” This seems to satisfy him.

The dance continues with a quicker tempo. “Religion is important,” he says. It’s not a question. I tell him I agree.

“What do you teach?”

Here it is. Don’t slip up. “Right now, I’m teaching Buddhism. And in the summer I’ll be teaching American religion at UNC.” I don’t tell him that I’ll be teaching on liberal traditions in American religious history, and therefore my students will learn about how many of the Founding Fathers held beliefs that most folks around here wouldn’t even consider Christian.

“Do you teach theology?”

“No, history. We’re a state university, we can’t teach theology.” Not precisely accurate, but it deflects the issue. “We learn about the history of religions. So now we’re learning about Buddhism. It’s a very old religion, interesting stuff. Lots of compassion.”

“I hear that China has more Christians than America,” he offers.

“I don’t know. They’ve got 1.5 billion people, so even if one or two percent are Christian, that’s a lot of folks. We’ve only got 300 million people.” I decide to put out a feeler, just to check and see if I’ve understood the actual boundaries of our relationship. “And these days, many of them aren’t Christian. Plus, we’ve got all sorts of Christianity. There’s a lot of different ways to be religious these days.”

“It worries me,” he says, and by his voice I know it’s true. “I worry about it a lot. What if God takes away his blessing from America, and gives it to India or China? I don’t think we’re headed in the right direction.” I agree, but for very different reasons. Almost imperceptibly, the scissors have slowed. “What about all those efforts to take God’s name off our money?”

“I know what you mean,” I tell him, and start rooting into my outsider’s knowledge of the Bible to see if I can say what I mean in a way that will be heard. “But I’ve never understood why it says ‘In God we trust’ on our currency. That doesn’t really jive with the Sermon on the Mount. There’s God and there’s Mammon. Which one’s being served by combining them together like that? I don’t think it belongs on there.”

Out of the corner of my eye I see him thinking, and then he nods slightly. “Well, what about the courts and the Ten Commandments and all that? All that stuff down there in, where is it, Louisiana?”

“Alabama. I’ve got family there. They all think the Ten Commandments should be in the courthouse.” His scissors are working furiously now; I close my eyes again. The dance continues. “But not me. I don’t think we should mix up religion and the courts like that. It’s not fair to non-Christians. We’re a secular nation with a lot of Christian citizens. The courts need to be free, they need to be fair to everyone. But if anyone tells you that the Bible isn’t an important historical source for American justice, they’re just plain wrong.”

I pause for a breath. The vocabulary is his, but the sentiments can still be mine. “You know, all of this is why I teach American religion. I just find it all so fascinating. Religion’s such an important part of American life. Every week I can bring in the newspaper and there’s guaranteed to be a story that my students can discuss. There’s so much controversy. And as America becomes more diverse, it’s important that we understand each other, that we respect our neighbors. Here in North Carolina, most of my students are Christians. But I also get a few Muslims or a few other kinds of folks. Even Buddhists. Things are changing around here too, and we’ve got to learn about each other.” Left unsaid: I’m part of that change.

“I’m a Southern Baptist,” he says, “but I guess you figured that out.” No kidding, buddy. My bait is left untouched.

“Some of my father’s people are Southern Baptists,” I say. “My mother’s folks are Methodists.” I don’t mention that my parents became Unitarian Universalists many years ago.

“I think one of the biggest controversies that’s brewing is between traditional and modern worship styles,” the barber says. “I go to Providence Church over in Raleigh, and they’ve got three services. Two of them are modern, and one of them is traditional. And some people don’t like one kind or the other. I don’t know what to think.” From his tone, I can tell that he’s actually asking me to provide a little direction. I’m a professor of religion, after all, and for some that’s at least halfway to being a pastor.

I’ve never set foot in a megachurch like Providence, but I also don’t have the luxury of not knowing about what’s going on with the local Christians. Turn on the TV or radio, or just go out shopping long enough, and you’ll pick it all up by osmosis. “I’ve heard about this,” I reply. “Churches like Providence are the hottest trend in American religion, and they’ve mainly grown by offering contemporary worship. But some of them are starting to offer traditional styles too.” Time to lead. “I like that. The way I see it, more approaches to religion means you’re more likely to find something that fits. And I’d hate to think that someone didn’t get religion because they were only allowed one way to worship. It would just be arrogant for me to say everybody’s got to do it my way.”

“Amen,” he says, and starts loosening the towel. “You’re done. You sure had a lot of hair.”

I do feel lighter, as a matter of fact. I pay him and hand over a tip, and he shakes my hand with a smile. “Nice talking with you,” he says. “You have a real nice day, you hear?”

Outside, the evening is growing darker, and orange and purple clouds hang in the western sky. As I start the long walk back toward home, I think about how nearly every interaction as a Buddhist in America is an interfaith encounter. When you practice Buddhism, especially in the South, you know each morning when you get up that you’ll be living with other people’s religion all day long. And they outnumber you a hundred to one. Like it or not, it’s here on the ground that dialogue really occurs. I’m sure there’s some benefit to groups of liberal Christians and Jews getting together with groups of liberal Buddhists to find out what we can all agree on. But real dialogue happens in the barbershop, on the bus, in the cafeteria, on line at the DMV, and these aren’t safe, intentionally ecumenical spaces. It happens out of necessity, and sometimes your partners don’t even know they’ve had an interfaith experience.

Because of my profession, I’ve talked to dozens of barbers about religion. Christians around here get to assume everyone is just like them, and to get through the day, sometimes you have to play along. Being a religious minority means learning to speak in the parlance of the majority. And in America that means becoming biblically fluent, because the Bible isn’t just a book—it’s a whole world, a universe that other people live in even as they share the same streets and neighborhoods with me. Or perhaps they’re not even the same streets, since we map them differently, by the Bible or the sutras. In order to get along, you have to learn to speak biblical English, a particular dialect just as surely as Ebonics or Creole.

According to tradition, whenever the Buddha preached, the audience heard his sermons as if he spoke to each of them alone, saying exactly what they needed to hear in their own language. There’s a similar idea in the Bible, when Jesus’ disciples were gathered together after his death, and they were suddenly filled by the holy spirit and began to speak spontaneously. A crowd formed, and though the people were from many countries, amidst the babble they all understood as if the disciples were speaking in their own languages, and many converted.

These were words that didn’t merely communicate, but actually transformed the listeners. Words inspired by the wonder beyond ourselves, what in the Bible is called God and in Buddhism is called Other Power, Buddha-nature, and many other names. The word “inspiration”—literally “breathing”—is important here. Not simply the breathing of beings, but of God. As 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it: “All scripture is God-breathed and useful.”

This is a deep statement that moves even a Buddhist like me, particularly when you realize that God only breathes a single time in Bible. As the story of Genesis opens, God creates all things, and names them good. Then, from the humble dirt of the ground, God molds Adam, and pressing over his face, breathes into him the kiss of life. Breath and life are the same, it seems to say. To say that all scriptures are God-breathed is to say that they are living documents, not dead letters. Like living things they grow, change, adapt, struggle, and cry out with joy at the gift of life. If we let them, all scriptures—biblical and Buddhist—can reveal themselves to us as inspired, breathing, living words, with the power to speak to us in our particular situations and with the teachings that we each need to hear.

But inspiration is also a luxury. As a non-Christian in a Christian world, learning the Bible is more about just getting by. Stand out too much as a religious “other” in some places, and there can be consequences. It’s a lesson that can come as a shock to a white guy, to follow your wandering soul out beyond the bounds of unacknowledged privilege, until an ugly encounter brings your newly marginal status home at last. You used to get a pass; now you have to learn how to pass, how to dance with partners who don’t know a thing about your religion, and don’t have to.

Buy the book!

Buy the book today!

As I pass the bus stop, some kids are playing around. One keeps climbing up on top of the trash can, until his mama hollers at him. Night is almost here and through my headphones Johnny Cash is singing about heaven. A breeze touches my scalp where this morning there was hair.

It’s a hard life for Christians too. I have to live in their world, but we’ve all got to live in the world, and it’s tough going. Sometimes you have to use the Bible to nudge a Christian ever so slightly in the direction you wish he’d go. Other times, a Christian sings out of the depths of his heart and makes an impression on you. With conviction, Cash declares to me, “I’m just an old lump of coal, but I’m gonna be a diamond some day.”

You and me both, Johnny, I think as night comes on, with the dogwood blossoms luminescent in the twilight. Buddhists, Baptists, Muslims, atheists. We’re all struggling here with each other, struggling together. And still, all beings, we’re gonna be diamonds some day.

Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of religious
studies and East Asian studies in Ontario. His most recent books include: Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (Oxford University Press 2009) and Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications 2009). His next book, with University of North Carolina Press, will examine Buddhism in the American South.