How We Show Up: Storytelling, Movement Building, and the First Noble Truth
For me, there’s an often missing and crucial piece of the puzzle in socially engaged Buddhist dialogues, both in person and especially in online dialogues where we express our views. I’m feeling strongly these days that there’s a seemingly invisible suffering caused by linearity and disembodiedness in online activist forums, and I’m wondering what organizing strategies and movement building methods can address this. How can we see, hear, and feel one another more clearly as we try to figure out how to set in motion systemic changes in complex, global systems of power and domination? How is it that we show up to and for one another when we express our views? Is there time and space and support for spirals of storytelling and sharing?
When we show up to express our views, to interact and engage with one another Dharmically in the service of liberation and social justice, can we show up as complete, unedited, embodied beings? Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “In Buddhism, all views are wrong views.” We need to understand this in the total context of his teaching, of course. But even as a one-sentence quote, I think it’s worth considering how perhaps we might make more space to hear more “wrong” views, and to hear more intimately the contexts in which they arise – to surround ourselves with the living fabric of one another’s lives. Perhaps our views are only “wrong” in that, by definition, they represent only part of the greater reality and we need one another more than we think, especially those who feel most foreign to us, and even more, those who are invisible to us.
At this very moment. . . . Are we in chronic physical pain? Is rent due and we know we’re comfortably able to pay it, or know we aren’t able to pay it and have to figure out how to stall, or get a loan? Are we planning on retiring at a certain age, or do we have to keep working as long as we can, and hope we die a swift death before our funds run out? Are we trying to read this while our young children are screaming or fighting with one another, or are there no children in our home or workplace or in the café where we’re sitting? Are we a person of color or person with a disability or person of non-conforming gender facing another day of pervasive micro- and macro-aggressions? In and of themselves, none of these things define us, and yet I do think they matter. They matter a lot, and increasingly matter a lot in my world, and I wonder whether they matter in your world, also. Because I’m wondering how we’re going to build movements that have the potential to transform and heal the massive injuries caused by inequity, exploitation and greed. I’m a mother, and I refuse despair.
So, as a longtime socially engaged Buddhist, I’ve got a story to tell you, and it will spiral back to ask you a question.
This is a true story about my best spiritual friend, who died at the end of December 2013.
I had been working on my laptop computer the evening when the Skype video conferencing program made its signature sound, and, clicking on the icon, found myself face to face with Bhante Suhita Dharma. He was wearing a plain brown, polyester, long-sleeved light coat – his usual version of monkish street or work clothing – and had headphones clamped to his ears. He stared owlishly through his large glasses, waiting for my image to appear on his computer monitor. The monastic room where he resided in a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Los Angeles part of the year was mostly in shadow behind him. None of this was unusual, but what was different this time was that he was surrounded by billowing clouds of smoke.
I had a friend who was a Buddhist monk in Bangladesh,” Bhante said. “He was murdered and his body was chopped into little bits and pieces. And I have photographs of all of it, in a box that’s right in back of me. I have the records. Indeed I do. Indeed I do!” He lit another cigarette off the one he was smoking. He had had a heart attack some years back and shouldn’t be smoking at all, much less chain smoking, but now was not the time for me to give a health lecture.
I rarely saw him visibly distressed. He liked to exemplify what an old deodorant commercial on TV boasted was their product’s result: cool, calm and collected. But everyone has their limits. Sooner or later, everyone suffers. It’s what the Buddha taught as the first of Four Noble Truths.
This may have been in June 2012, when, in Burma/Myanmar, according to one news source, “long-standing resentment between the Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, two ethnic groups, erupted in bloody fury.” I’d been reading the news, but, having never been to Southeast Asia, my feelings of horror and concern weren’t nearly as visceral and vivid as Bhante Suhita’s. He’d spent time traveling in and often living for extended periods of time in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and many other Buddhist countries. Furthermore, he was what I called a news junkie. He always had a television in his room, wherever he lived, tuned perpetually to the CNN channel. Unlike me, Bhante seemed to love being immersed constantly in the babbling stream of local and world atrocities, banalities, weather and sports reports. But this time his TV was off, and I could tell he was stressed.
“It’s horrible,” Bhante said vehemently, referring to the violence and killing in Myanmar. “Horrible.” He inhaled deeply on the cigarette he was smoking and exhaled. That explained the ancient-dragon-in-its-lair effect. I sat up a little straighter, even though it was a bit late and I was tired. The best thing I could do was listen attentively, without “trying to make things better.” Things were not better– a major reason why Buddha’s teaching of the First Noble Truth is as fresh now as it was 2,600 years ago.
And with this, I’m back to now, whenever “now” is for you as you read this. I do want to hear you and learn from you; I struggle deeply every day with a feeling of unknowing as I contemplate global climate change, gentrification in urban areas, GMO foods and the dangers of monoculture, and the fear that here in the U.S. our young Black males won’t live or thrive and that there are those who like it this way. And I don’t want to forget any story that’s ever been entrusted to me — the anxiety of an undocumented immigrant high school student in Oakland who had come from Mexico using her cousin’s I.D. with her mother lying in a concealed space under the car seat; or the poetry of the war veteran I know, who writes about “Spring in Jalula”: There is always a new bomb. Each week, /someone finds one, hidden ….*
Can we, will we, figure out a way to make it so that there isn’t always a new bomb? That’s, really, what I want to know.
My best spiritual friend, Ven. Suhita, always showed up for me whenever he called or Skyped or whenever we got together in person. It may or may not be meaningful to you to say that as I’m writing this I’m sitting in my cluttered room in a one-bedroom, rental unit at the top of an old house in Oakland, California. My adult child, who lives here, has the one bedroom. My room would usually be called the living room of this space. There’s a bathroom and a kitchen, and some closet space. I’m 60 years old, Japanese American, raised in Ohio in a working-class rural community, so I speak U.S. English with a Midwestern accent. I work with volunteers and teach socially engaged Buddhism and mindfulness at East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland. I have a disability called Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) that means I stay home a lot. I’ve been a single mother and I’ve been a Buddhist monastic. I had organic kale salad and a fried egg for breakfast. I’m much more than what I’m telling you, and hopefully this is a start to us connecting.
If you’re a Buddhist or spiritual practitioner engaged in social change or social justice work, what’s your experience with how we show up for one another? What’s your embodied story, your telling of the way forward, out of suffering?
*from The Stick Soldiers, poems by Hugh Martin, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize
Top photo 1 by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. “A rally in Washington, DC in support of the equal health and livelihood of trans people, that included basic information about trans health issues and stories of denied / inappropriate care, as well as hope for the future. Ruby Corado, of Casa Ruby DC, tells her story.”
Top photo 2 by Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons license. “The Community Engagement Project founded by Yemi Olu is trying to make a difference in the world by reaching out to people. Here they are collecting stories outside the Chinatown Metro in D.C.”
Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda is an author, mentor, community activist, and Buddhist teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center.
She teaches meditation retreats for people of color, women, and social justice activists nationally. Mushim’s Dharma teachings are supported by the practice of generous giving (Dana). She lives simply in order to share the practices of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness with others in a fully accessible manner.
About BPF’s The System Stinks
Buddhist social justice curriculum
To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.
This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.
Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.
If you like what you see, spread the word to show the world another side of Buddhism!
We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.