Viktor Frankl developed a theory that through suffering and hardship, individuals are capable of finding the “meaning and purpose of life”. Born on March 26, 1905, Frankl developed his theory called ‘Logotherapy’ which were based on his experiences and observations during his time in the Nazi Concentration Camps. Although he survived the Holocaust, his wife, parents and other family members didn’t. This changed his attitude to find desire in the meaning of life, driven by his experiences of suffering. In 1945, Frankl published his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” where he states, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves” (Horn, 2014). This can be reflected through the religious perspective of Buddhism as well as Maya Angelou’s ‘Meaning of Life’ through her works. The concept of ‘Suffering’ to achieve ‘Enlightenment’ in Buddhism’s perspective follows with Maya Angelou’s challenge with adversity during her early, which has enabled her to use her voice and words to advocate for the marginalised and silenced.
Maya Angelou’s Success in Life
Born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou has lived a long and storied life full of suffering, humility, inspiration, heroism, and leadership. Angelou was many things; an acclaimed African American poet, performer, historian, memoirist and civil rights activist. Angelou was one of the most eminent writers of her generation, earning dozens of awards and 50 honorary awards. Out of the 36 books she has published, Angelou’s critically acclaimed ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ was the first of her seven autobiographical books and was described to be a “poetic and powerful modern American classic” (Angelou, 2009). It was one of the first books to address the issues of rape, identity, and racism by honestly depicting the experiences of black women growing up in the 1900s (Lanzendorfer, 2017). Angelou was a dancer is Porgy and Bess, director of the 1998 film Down in the Delta, and worked alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights activist advocating for social and racial justice leading up to the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s (Nichols, 2014). Maya Angelou continues to be an influential voice of our time, shaping history and paving the way for the marginalised and silenced through her works, speeches and actions.
Freedom of Will in Buddhism and in the eyes of Angelou
For Buddhism, the issue of freewill derives from the core concept of Karma which refers to actions driven by intention, and therefore agrees with Viktor Frankl’s first principle “Freedom of Will” as people can shape their life within the limits of their given possibilities. Buddhists believe that the action of body, speech, and mind affects the seeds of karma which shape every aspect of their life (Goldstein, 2019). Positive thoughts, words, and actions create positive effects for individuals, leading to happiness. Whereas negative thoughts, words, and actions undermine the dignity of life (Soka Gakkai International, 2015). As Buddhists believe that we are in control of our ultimate fates, good karmic outcomes are determined by our actions based upon motives of generosity; compassion, kindness and sympathy, and clear mindfulness or wisdom. This comes from the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the end of suffering and ultimately, the path to achieving enlightenment. Although Buddhism does not believe in the notion of ‘free-will’, it is indisputable that it embraces a universal determinism where every effect, without exception, has a cause (Nicholas F. Gier, 2004). Furthermore, Maya Angelou’s free will were limited given the restraints she had growing up, during the 1900s. At such a young age, she experienced the divorce of her parents leading to her and older brother, Bailey Jr., to live with their paternal grandmother, Anne Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas. Although they were faced with the harsh economics during the Great Depression and World War II, Angelou’s grandmother prospered financially with the help of the general store she owned (Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, 2008). As an African American, Angelou sadly experienced firsthand racial prejudices and discrimination. Although her grandmother, “one of the most significant, pious women” in Angelou’s life, helped to develop her pride and self-confidence, Angelou became insecure of her appearance.
Maya Angelou’s Will to Meaning
Viktor Frankl’s ‘Will to Meaning’ is seen through Maya Angelou’s childhood life as she continued to experience extreme racism and rape that ultimately changed her perspective on life. The ‘Will to Meaning’ is when a person experiences an abysmal sensation of meaninglessness and emptiness. Maya Angelou lived in a town entrenched in severe racism which significantly impacted on how she became extremely insecure growing up, viewing herself to be “awkward, unwanted and ugly because she was black” (Deborah Latchison Mason, 2019). For instance, when Angelou had severe toothache, she was taken to the only dentist in town by her Momma, where she was refused to be treated by the Dentist as he proclaimed that he would “rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than in black Maya’s” (Deborah Latchison Mason, 2019). This was just one of the many instances in Maya Angelou’s childhood that she experienced adversity. Furthermore, at the age of seven, Maya Angelou was severely raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman, which left her hospitalised. Although Freeman was found guilty, he was only jailed for one day. Four days after his release, Freeman was found kicked to death and Angelou blamed herself as she had spoken his name (Chashymie, 2016). Angelou became mute for five years as she stated in her autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again because my voice would kill anyone.” (BCC World Service, 2013). However, Maya Angelou expressed the hidden gift in the suffering contraction around expression by introducing herself to find passion in literature, with the help of Bertha Flowers. Bertha Flowers was described by Angelou as a beautiful, refined, and educated black women who became one of her saviours during the time of Angelou’s silence. Flowers was a great teacher who exposed Angelou to classic authors including Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and James Weldon Johnson and more. Through this, Angelou released that words had the power to create, not destroy. Angelou realised the power, eloquence, and beauty of the spoken word and this awakened her passion for poetry, built confidence and goaded her out of silence (Deborah Latchison Mason, 2019). In an interview, From Silence of Rape to Voice of Compassion (2016), she stated, “out of this evil… I was saved in that muteness” as Angelou was able to develop a voice of compassion. Out of emptiness, Maya Angelou was “able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph [herself]” (Chashymie, 2016).
Happiness and Maya Angelou’s Meaning to Life
For Buddhism, the pursuit of happiness is achieved by detaching oneself from the concept of Dukkha and is done through knowledge and practice. Dukkha, translated to “suffering”, “pain”, “unsatisfactoriness” or “stress”, is based on the Buddhist doctrine of suffering; its reality, cause, and means. Dukkha comes in three categories; Suffering or Pain, Impermanence or Change, and the Conditional Status. This concept is derived from The Four Noble Truths; the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering (PBS, 2019). The Four Noble comprises the essence of Buddha’s teaches and explains that the notion of suffering exists; it has a cause; an end; and the cause to end it. In relation to Maya Angelou, the end of her suffering was when she utilised her personal experiences of profound racism and segregation into her passion, fortitude and strength for literature. This is seen through her poem Caged Bird (1983), that captured the attention of audiences around the world in relation to Black power and women – the fight against racism and oppression. In the poem, Angelou uses “caged bird” and “free bird” as symbols for exploring the themes of fear, oppression and the pressures of life. In relation to the 1960s, the “[captured] bird that stalks down his narrow cage” who “sings of freedom” is effectively used when explaining the struggle of African Americans and the racial segregation laws imposed in the early 20th century. Furthermore, Angelou was a prominently involved in the Civil Rights Movement 1950s to 1960s, working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Gillespie, 2014). to advocate for justice and equality; improving the quality of life for African Americans and all citizens. Despite the adversity Angelou faced, she became the voice for a voice for the weak, oppressed and marginalised by challenging social norms such as racial injustice and discrimination through her works and experiences.
Hence, the concept of ‘Suffering’ to achieve ‘Enlightenment’ in Buddhism’s perspective follows with Maya Angelou’s challenge with adversity during her early, that has enabled her to use her voice and words to advocate for the marginalised and silenced.