“Memory Is Political”: Storytelling, Movement Building, and the Third Noble Truth
The question of the usefulness or non-relevance of “the story” is one of the great “both / ands” of living a Buddhist life. And, all human stories, descending from the most cosmic myths down to the minor tale of the painful hangnail that snagged on a sweater thread, emerge from and reside in embodied – not abstracted or philosophical – human thought and memory. Here, for example, are two “true” stories:
Story #1: It Comes Down to This
When my mother was battling large-cell lymphoma in the late nineties, she did everything possible to get well. She grew pesticide-free vegetables in her yard in rural Virginia, dragged herself a few steps back and forth on the deck every day for exercise, and asked me to read aloud a guided imagery meditation from a book and record it on a cassette tape. I was her oldest child, and I used to imagine her lying in the dark, listening to my voice, then repeating her cancer conquering affirmations and drifting off to sleep. She was a widow by then, and, by choice, she lived alone in the house that she and my father had built for their retirement, a house surrounded by forest and next to a lake. My mother and father loved that house. A book that my mother kept next to her bed was titled From Victim to Victor: For Cancer Patients and Their Families. My mom worked hard on becoming a cancer survivor and when the disease returned for the third time, despite years of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant which kept her hospitalized in a clean room for a month, she was, understandably, enraged. We can’t really know what another person’s experience has been, of course, but if I were asked to guess, I don’t think she died feeling like a victor. From what I heard of her last few weeks, she was bitter and felt cheated of the life she thought she deserved. After all, she hadn’t smoked, never drank alcohol, worked hard, and was a kind and broad-minded Nisei who had outlasted both the anti-Japanese discrimination of World War II and years of taking care of my violent and crazy father. She was, therefore, really angry about the lymphoma, and when I think of how she died, I think of Rick Fields, the well-known American Buddhist historian, practitioner, editor and author, whose last book was titled Fuck You Cancer & Other Poems. If I were making a movie about my mother’s death, I’d probably end with a tight close up of Fields’s book cover, and a voiceover of Rick reading from it:
God is extra I is extra Extra is extra
In other words, this story is not a romance. Story #2: Kafka for Kids
We were on vacation, driving through the Sierras, with our young son strapped into his car seat in the back seat of the car and, for whatever reason, the topic of Franz Kafka’s famous short story, “The Metamorphosis,” came up.
“What’s that?” J., who was probably six or seven at the time, asked his dad and me.
“It’s a story for grownups,” I said. “A man named Gregor Samsa goes to sleep one night. When he wakes up in the morning, he has turned into a giant bug. Some people say it was a cockroach but the author never actually specified that. His family is horrified and they keep him locked in his bedroom. One day one of his family members hurls an apple at him. It is very hard and it breaks his shell and embeds in his body. It rots and the wound causes him terrible pain.”
J., who was raised in a socially-engaged Buddhist home, and who had been babysat by Zen master and social justice activist Robert Aitken, Roshi, was incensed by this. He shouted, “That story is stupid and I would change the ending. When the apple gets throwed at him, Gregor picks it up and throws it back at the person’s head. Then he rushes past all his family, because he is big and strong. And he goes out of his room and down the stairs and he goes out of the house. And he finds a new place to live.”
There was silence in the car after this ringing manifesto. We gazed thoughtfully out the car windows at the mountain vistas.
Even though he was fairly young when he championed Gregor, our son was familiar with situations in which family members might try to kill one another. He had attended an Oakland preschool that went through a security crisis. A history of domestic violence was revealed in one of the school’s wealthier families and the preschool went into lockdown when the parents’ marriage broke up because the father was a gun collector and used to shoot holes in the bedroom ceilings when he was angered. He had told his wife, “Whatever happens, promise that you won’t take our three children away from me.” Fearing for her and her children’s lives, she had done exactly that, and no one knew whether the dad would bring weapons to the school and demand his kids, to whom he had a legal right.
This, also, is not a romance.
* * * *
Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: “I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.”
– Dr. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Although the non-famous stories above are true stories from “my” life, if you read them as literature, you’ll notice that they intimate certain social and historical contexts, and also that they are about pain and sorrow and illness and anger and fear in the human body, and possibly in the bodies of non-humans as well.
When the author of A History of Asian Americans: Strangers from a Different Shore, signed the copy of his book I had just purchased, he wrote in it, “To remember our roots. Memory is political. Ron Takaki.”
Prof. Takaki’s book was first published in 1989 and reprinted in a new edition in 1998 by Little, Brown and Company. The author’s preface to the new edition is titled “Confronting ‘Cultural Literacy’: The Redefining of America.” Like other, similar histories by “ethnic minorities” in the U.S. that have been published in the past several decades, Strangers from a Different Shore is an impassioned narrative history woven from stories and poems and songs by people who were never thought of previously as makers of history. “Detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay,” Dr. Takaki says, “Chinese immigrants carved over a hundred poems on the walls of the barracks. One of them wrote:
"…For over a month, I have experienced enough wind and waves… I look up and see Oakland so close by…. Discontent fills my belly and it is difficult for me to sleep. I just write these few lines to express what is on my mind."
I write this from my home in the city of Oakland. There are so many voices, so many stories – stories of individuals, of families and tribes, of nations, of the planet, of non-human species, of the cosmos. Some of these are expressions of mindstates that the Buddha might have called unwholesome, or non-beneficial: greed, exploitation, disconnection, hatred, and delusion. And other stories seek to research what has been lost: to reclaim, to say what has been unsayable, and to redefine history and memory, upholding liberation, wholeness and life over subjugation and death. This need (as a socially-engaged Buddhist I would call it a basic life-supporting need, not a craving or desire) to find and formulate and tell and remember new stories in the service of social awakening, of truth, and of multi-dimensional wholeness and compassion is something that even children instinctively understand and seek to fulfill.
Sakyamuni Buddha taught the Dharma through illustrative stories because he understood that human beings learn and think and grow through stories. Given a bunch of random dots, our brains connect them into shapes and outlines which we then fill in with our own content. Rather than taking an absolutist position of exhorting Buddhists to abandon dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, “suffering,” the First Noble Truth) through “giving up your story,” I think that Buddhist teachers and communities need to embrace the stories that those whose hearts have been touched by the Dharma bring with them. Having worked in a number of different Buddhist centers, I know that people bring their memories and stories when they enter the Buddha Hall or the meditation hall or when they call or email or write, asking, in effect, “Is there something here that will help me to navigate the stormy seas of my life? I’m afraid of capsizing and drowning in trauma and stress.”
It’s a very human process, and a lengthy one. Breathe in. Patiently embrace the story that arises. Look deeply, and understand its causes and conditions. See if in the process of this deep looking it changes or doesn’t change. Breathe out and let it go. Breathe in. Share the story with supportive and sensitive spiritual friends. Breathe out and let it go. Breathe in. Write your poem or essay or novel; sing your song or play the music that expresses your experience and that of your cultures and people; paint or draw or dance it, and thus release it into the world and the vast rivers of stories that are arising and mingling, joining and separating, falling and flowing. Seek like-minded communities and work unceasingly for liberation; dismantle injustice and oppression however you can and find joy and peace within your work as much as you can. Play with children and care for those who are ill and elderly. Keep going and, at some point, you will breathe out and, whether you are ready or not to go through the big change that we call death, you will not breathe in again. But someone will.
Of the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching of the Dharma, Sakyamuni Buddha taught the Third Truth as dukkhanirodhaariyasacca, or thus we are told. There is a path out of seemingly endless samsaric suffering. Nirvana (nibbana) is possible – the dying down of the hellish flames of afflictive emotions and thoughts and delusions into refreshing coolness – the Unbinding of ancient twisted karma, the release and spiritual resolution of each and every tale of woe. And this sounds pretty good to me, kind of like the best vacation ever. Or maybe it sounds strange and unknowable, but certainly better than greed, hate, delusion, and the suffering of sickness, old age, and death.
The Third Noble Truth is good news, especially so considering the First and Second Truths, which can be depressing. It might give us a sense of refreshing coolness and lightness and spaciousness and joy just by hearing it and considering that there is the possibility of an end to suffering. For some of us, this implies also the possibility of Dharmic or Dhammic societies, going beyond individual liberation to societal awakening and planetary, environmental sustainability. We are even invited to consider the potential for universal liberation.
“The time has come for us to reimagine everything,” the legendary, almost 100-year-old Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs has said. Over and over, she points to the need to not get stuck in protesting wrongs but instead to involve ourselves passionately – meaning, with the full vitality of our life force, our intelligence, our unconditional love, our intuition, our money, our community resources, everything we’ve got – in visioning and manifesting the good.
How we accomplish this is what we need to figure out. Even with the best of intentions, we make messes. Luckily, we do have a map to follow: the Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth.
Top photo: Mural in Tulum, Mexico. Photo by Mira Stern, used with permission.
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 was recently awarded the annual Gil Lopez Award for peacemaking from the Association of Dispute Resolution of Northern California in recognition of her one-year program, Practice in Transformative Action, providing mindfulness training for agents of social change, at EBMC. 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.