Shaolin Monks on the Mic: Orientalism, Buddhism, and the Wu Tang Clan, Pt. 2

Self and the “Asiatic” in Five Percenter Ideology

The Nation of Gods and Earths, more commonly known as the Five Percent Nation, is a gnostic offshoot of the Nation of Islam that heavily influenced hip-hop (Pinn 15). The organization believes that the true nature of the black man as God has been hidden by the lies of the “white devil”, and only by realizing self-knowledge does the individual attain enlightenment, and become a God (Floyd-Thomas 55). The Five Percenters derive their name from their belief that 85% of the world is ignorant of the truth (regarding the divinity of the black man), 10% is in on the secret and is trying to use that knowledge to manipulate the 85%, and the remaining 5% knows the truth and is trying to save the 85% from the machinations of the 10% (Floyd-Thomas 55-56). The teachings of the Five Percenters are passed on through a mystical system of numerology called Supreme Mathematics, which encodes both spiritual and scientific knowledge (Floyd-Thomas 56). All the members of the Wu Tang Clan identify in some way with the Nation of Gods and Earths, and the RZA cites Mathematics as having a completely transformative effect on his life, inspiring him to accomplish great things (The Tao of Wu 40). “If you were poor and black, Mathematics attacked the idea that you were meant to be ignorant, uneducated, blind to the world around you. It exposed the lies that helped people treat your forefathers like animals” (The Tao of Wu 40). For black urban youth in the late 20th century, and hip-hoppers in particular, the Five Percenter movement created a sense of empowerment by positing a new black identity, one that rejected the limitations imposed on it by racism and oppression.

This new conception of black identity is built largely on Orientalism; beyond the appeals to Islam as the way to liberation, the Five Percenters directly tied the origin of the African people to Asia. The “Asiatic Black Man” is an idea that the Five Percenters derived from the Nation of Islam, and the NOI itself derived from the Moorish Science Temple[1]; according to the doctrine, the original humans were black and originated in Asia (Gibbs 90). The Five Percenter movement associates the term “Asiatic” with those who possess knowledge (Gibbs 89), a paean to the “mystical Orient”. In addition to giving support to his Orientalism, Five Percenter tradition justifies, and in fact encourages, the spiritual syncretism practiced by the RZA. According to Melvin Gibbs, “all ‘Asiatic’… mystic thought that is found to agree with the Supreme Mathematics is regarded as Islam and therefore regarded as part of the Five Percenter canon” (Gibbs 91).

According to Nathaniel Deutsch, “the ideology of the Asiatic Black Man may be seen as an internal narrative within the African American community whose goal was to create an alternative national consciousness to the one promoted by racist mainstream society” (Deutsch). Basing the new black identity in the “mystical Orient” lends it a gravitas and sense of spiritual transcendence that stands in stark contrast to racist stereotypes of African Americans as brutish and ignorant. In response to being treated as “others” by the dominant European forces in American culture, the Five Percenters grab hold of a concept of the “other” that has positive connotations rather than negative ones. Realizing the Asiatic origins of the black man is one of the steps in realizing the “knowledge of self”.

Knowledge of self ties in with the Wu Tang Clan’s Ch’an Buddhist influences, integrating with tathagatagarbha thought. The RZA identifies one of the main teachings of Ch’an Buddhism as being “that every person has an inherent Buddha nature inside—anyone can become enlightened” (Wu Tang Manual 55). In The Tao of Wu, the RZA can be seen to draw parallels between this teaching and the “knowledge of self” derived from Supreme Mathematics. He references an inner consciousness discovered through meditation, “a part of you that’s always there, always consistent, that represents your true self—the part connected to God” (Tao of Wu 103). This belief forms a synthesis between the “tathagatagarbha’s consciousness” found in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, which can be interpreted as knowledge of a “true self”, a Buddha nature that is always there (Williams 105), and the knowledge of self as God from Five Percenter tradition.

Continued in Part 3!

[1] The Moorish Science Temple, founded in the 19th century by Noble Drew Ali, was the original Afrocentric Islamic movement (Deutsch).