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How We Show Up: Storytelling, Movement Building, and the First Noble Truth

2013_Rally_for_Transgender_Equality_21196_(8603723107) (1)

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?

vpickering mushim tell us your story

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 (], 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.

Robert Aitken Roshi, carrying his signature sign at a protestAbout 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.

You can support engaged Buddhist media makers by donating to BPF.


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Comments (7)

  • Matthew Spitzer

    Thank you Mushim for this well-written, thoughtful article. I would like to respond, in solidarity, to a few of your points. Although I spend a fair amount of time reading news articles on other sites and posts like this on BPF online, I rarely leave a comment. Part of this may be because of business or fear that my comment won’t make a difference, but I think that a large part of it is this issue of “showing up.” It is necessary to point out, as you do, that disembodied online conversations leave an important part of the context of the conversation out of the picture. As far as I understand it, Buddhism isn’t a set of teachings that applies to every person in exactly the same manner. Rather, the Buddha used “upaya” or skillful means to fit his teaching to the particular audience he was addressing. If we don’t really know who we’re talking to, how we can we engage in an appropriate and productive conversation?

    I love the quote from Thicht Nhat Hanh–“In Buddhism, all views are wrong views.” Yes, as you say, this does need to be considered in the context of his teachings. And yet, I think what is so powerful about this statement is the pulling-the-rug-out-from-under-you effect it has on the reader. “Of course my views are right,” I usually think (sometimes subconsciously), or at least, “if mine aren’t, there must be someone who has the right view.” This idea of there being an “absolute right” and “absolute wrong” might seem comforting to some (me included). If there is an absolute right and wrong view, then there is some order and structure to the universe and to our situation, and, even if our situation involves a lot of suffering, we can take some solace in that. I think what Thicht Nhat Hanh is trying to get at with this assertion is that all views are fundamentally flawed, precisely in that they are views. That is, whatever view we have about a situation is inherently flawed since it is OUR view on the situation, and so is conditioned by the myriad factors of our personal situation. That is why it is so important to explain who we are, to “show up,” as you say, when having these kinds of conversations.

    Who am I? Well, I don’t know, really, but right now I’m a 20 year old white male of Jewish heritage studying Religion with a concentration in Buddhism at Middlebury College in Vermont. I live in a double with a roommate in a small co-op house in the town of Middlebury and am nervous about the schoolwork I have to get done this week as well as greater questions about my studies and life in general. I have other problems and sufferings that I don’t feel comfortable sharing on this public forum, but I hope it’s helpful to at least have some background.

  • Mushim

    Matthew, thank you for your comments here. I feel totally understood and supported by you and I hope that you feel the same by me! We can get an Oakland Vermont connection going to enlarge our Buddhist Peace Fellowship family. Here’s what you wrote that makes me stand up and cheer:

    “If we don’t really know who we’re talking to, how we can we engage in an appropriate and productive conversation?”

    Simple as that may sound, in my experience with online conversations among people who have not met one another in person, this is a truly profound point that I feel is well worth exploring.

    I hear what you’re saying about being nervous about the amount of studies and schoolwork you need to do, as well as larger questions. Katie Loncke and Dawn Haney, our courageous co-leaders of Buddhist Peace Fellowship, are following through on a vigorous initiative to encourage and spread diversity thought leadership and inclusivity, and I for one would greatly welcome and appreciate your contributions to socially-engaged Buddhist thought here at Turning Wheel media and in other online Buddhist forums.

  • Matthew Spitzer

    Thanks Mushim, I feel understood and supported by you as well! I agree–it can be so difficult to have online conversations, but at least I feel that you and I are having a productive one here. I would love to contribute more to socially-engaged Buddhist thought at Turning Wheel media! I am looking into opportunities for this summer, and my first choice would be to volunteer at BPF, whether in the Bay Area or remotely.

  • Dawn Haney

    Thanks Mushim & Matthew for your thoughtful conversation here. I think showing up as spiritual friends to each other is one of core reasons BPF is around. And it’s not easy to do when we’re in the same room with each other, much less across thousands of miles. Thanks for modeling how today’s technology – Skype, blogs, comments – can bridge that gap. I’m excited for how our upcoming BPF gathering (details coming very soon!) will help us bring more of this connection face-to-face.

    Matthew (and other lurkers) – we should definitely talk more about volunteer & internship opportunities. One of our brilliant interns a couple of years ago was from Middlebury College – I think Hanna Mahon just graduated, but I’m hoping you two got to cross paths while she was there. Here’s a link to a little more info on our volunteer opportunities – send us a note so we can talk more!

  • Matthew Spitzer

    Hi Dawn–I just wanted to let you know that I sent a note to with some info about me and why I would like to work with BPF. If it would work out for me to intern with BPF over the summer, I would need to know by April 6 at the latest as I would have to apply for funding from Middlebury for the flight out to the Bay Area. Let me know what you think. Thanks.

  • Ann

    Hi Mushim,

    It’s interesting to read this article, which I read essentially as a call to not just think about but to be more generous towards the specific embodied (in both personal and social sense of the word) location of different views at a time when there’s so many clashing views, both within practice and academic Buddhist circles around the secularization of mindfulness techniques. I’m personally struggling to acknowledge both the individual and structural suffering perhaps simultaneously generated and alleviated by the secular diffusion of mindfulness but I think understanding the context out of which other views are arising is essential –right now I’m struck by so many straw men and polemical one-upmanship’s and far less of a sense of collective can we (even if not how-do-we) -put-these pieces together, together. And i think that knowing the context, the embodied stories really helps with responding to the Other as a living human being and not as a position (or View) that we’re going to flatten.
    Thanks for the perspective,

  • Mushim

    Thank you for your astute comment, Ann: “right now I’m struck by so many straw men and polemical one-upmanship’s and far less of a sense of collective can we (even if not how-do-we) -put-these pieces together.” When we hear real stories of real, embodied people, it’s sometimes not so easy to mock them. I took an MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) two-month course at a local health facility to explore what a fairly in-depth presentation of totally secularized mindfulness looks like. During the two months, one of the class participants had a medical emergency and almost bled to death. They were in the hospital, too weak to open their eyes or speak, and one of their family members present said, “I saw that your toes were moving.” The hospitalized person, even in this dire state, was doing a body scan meditation, this person later said, calming and grounding themself in order to heal. For every person who points out that Jon Kabat-Zinn, who branded MBSR and popularized it, and who has probably made a very large amount of money from it, is profiting from other people’s suffering using Buddhist practices that were originally meant to be offered free of any charge — there may be another person, like the one in the true story I’ve just told, who knows that a practice they learned in a secularized mindfulness context has helped to decrease their suffering and even to help save their life.

    Real people have curves — they don’t “flatten,” to use your apt word, so easily. That’s been my experience, anyway. And I very much want to be a part of putting the pieces together into people’s movements that can, with the least amount of harm, start to address the many broken systems in the U.S., which are tied to broken systems globally. As you point out — can we do it? And, how can we do it? I know I’m not even close to any answer about the “how.” I need you, and billions of other people, for that.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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