Jan Willis

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Jan Willis, circa 2011

Janice Dean Willis (born 1948) is a Buddhist studies scholar, author and humanitarian. She is Professor Emerita of Religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and now Visiting Professor of Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA.[1]

In 2001, her memoir, Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey was published. It was re-issued in 2008 by Wisdom Publications as Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey.[1]

In December of 2000, TIME magazine named Willis one of six “spiritual innovators for the new millennium.” In 2003, she was a recipient of Wesleyan University’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Newsweek magazine’s “Spirituality in America” issue in September of 2005 included a profile of Willis and, in its May 2007 edition, Ebony magazine named Willis one of its “Power 150” most influential African Americans.[1]

Willis was born in in Docena, Alabama in 1948.[2] As a 10th grader in the 1960s, Willis marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama. According to Willis, that experience changed her life forever.[3] Willis stated: “The nonviolence that I witnessed there is echoed in Buddhism.” Though she grew up a Baptist, she later became a practitioner and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.[3]

Willis left Birmingham, Alabama to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where she completed a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy in 1969. While at Cornell she was able to take a summer-long study trip to India. She returned to India many times and became a pupil of the Tibetan teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe.[2]

Willis earned a Master of Arts in Philosophy from Cornell in 1971, and a Ph.D in Indic and Buddhist Studies from Columbia University in New York City in 1976. Her doctoral dissertation was entitled "A Study of the Chapter on Reality Based Upon the Tattvartha-patalam of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi."[2]

While pursuing her doctoral degree, Willis taught at the University of California-Santa Cruz. In 1977 she accepted a visiting professorship to Wesleyan University where she remained until she retired. She has served as acting director of Wesleyan's Center for African American Studies (1985-86) and as chair of the Department of Religion (1983-84, 88-90, 97-98).[2]

Willis has studied with Tibetan Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland and the U.S. for five decades, and has taught courses in Buddhism for over forty years.[1] She has published numerous articles and essays on various topics in Buddhism—Buddhist meditation, hagiography, women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and race.[1]


  • Willis, Jan (1972) The Diamond Light of the Eastern Dawn: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation. New York: Simon & Schuster
  • Willis, Jan (1979) On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi. New York: Columbia University Press
  • Willis, Jan, editor (1989) '"Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications
  • Willis, Jan (1995) Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
  • Willis, Jan (2001) Dreaming Me: An African American Baptist-Buddhist Journey. New York: Riverhead Books
  • Willis, Jan (2008) Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey, Wisdom Books


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