Mushim Ikeda Interview
As you may have heard, BPF’s 2013 series of dialogues, “The System Stinks” is on the way! We’re going to be talking about true systemic issues, like greed enshrined in capitalism, colonialism in our mind and world, and what we can do about it. At this point, you might be wondering who exactly you’ll be talking to about all this stuff. To give a glimpse into the year ahead, BPF will be posting some interviews with prominent BPF members giving their take on social engagement, Buddhism, and the intersection of the two. Our first interview is with Dharma leader Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda.
What project are you excited to be working on right now? How is it influenced by Buddhism?
I’m excited to be part of the East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland. We’re a community-based meditation center, with a diversity and social justice-centered mission. We’re mainly based in Buddhist teachings and practices, although we incorporate teachings from many wisdom traditions that are relevant to the needs of our Sangha, or spiritual community. Jack Kornfield has called EBMC “one of the most diverse meditation centers on the planet,” and how exciting is that?! Check us out on the Web: www.eastbaymeditation.org. My original Buddhist training was in the old school, hierarchical model that has come to us from Asia — which has a lot of benefits, by the way, and is not at all about superiors mindlessly ordering those in the lower ranks around. That having been said, I am a U.S. citizen and I grew up during the civil rights era, the women’s movement, the gay liberation movement, and during the time when Ethnic Studies programs were being founded at undergraduate educational institutions in this country. Equity, participatory decision-making, human rights, and civil rights are all part of my spiritual DNA, so to speak, and these are all interwoven into the foundation of EBMC. At the same time, because so many social justice initiatives can be languaged in oppositional terms (“Let’s fight this, let’s go to war with that”) and habitual anger, despair, and burnout endanger the mental and physical health of so many activists, we also need a Dharmic perspective, and Dharmic principles as taught by the Buddha, to bring healing and balance to our work for justice.
What practices have helped you develop more compassion for those who are doing “wrong” in the world? Do you have an example of how that has informed your actions?
I am doing “wrong” in the world every moment that I am alive. I am a citizen of the greediest nation on the planet, and since not everything I buy is fair-trade, I am definitely using products made with labor from exploited workers. I sometimes drive a car, using fossil fuels. This morning I sprayed a bunch of aphids on my rose bush with insecticide, violating the First Precept. I’m not a vegan. I have leather shoes. From many points of view, I am pretty much a constant wrong-doer in the world, although I do not have the power to make decisions that will instantly create more “wrong” in the world on a massive scale. I have no lack of compassion for any of us wrong-doers, not because I think that compassion is noble, but because I think it’s the only practical attitude that supports the potential for pragmatic cooperation toward a more just and sustainable world. I guess you could say that the practice that helps me develop more compassion is reflection on how futile it is, from what I can see, for people to polarize and attack each other’s views based on the most egregious wrongs they can summon up. Legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs says that in order for a real revolution to take place during our time, we have to focus not on abuses, but on values. I agree. I think we have to forget about compassion for those we judge as doing “wrong” in the world, and take a deep look at how judging others works. The “other” people might be summoning up compassion and praying for us because they think we are doing wrong! I’m talking about the kind of false compassion in which there is an I and a you, and us and a them, a right and a wrong, of course. When we stop slicing and dicing, we can get down to our common values – - and I do believe that there are common social values, such as children’s health and education — and move forward from there.
Have you had a moment of insight or wisdom that compelled you to Buddhist-inspired action?
I am pro-choice, I vote pro-choice, and when I began Zen Buddhist practice I was working part-time as office manager of the Michigan Abortion Rights Action League in Ann Arbor, with a fantastic team of empowered women. I venture to say it’s very likely that I will be pro-choice for universal access to birth control and for reproductive rights until I die. That is my political stance and I hold it very strongly, and it used to be almost impossible for me to understand why anyone would vote differently than I do on these matters. I was very surprised that, as soon as I got pregnant with my son, who is an only child, I established a very strong connection with him and we began “talking” to one another, although instead of using words, it was more like the conversation between the sun and the sunflower. The precious opportunity of rebirth as a human being became completely clear and compelling to me in a way that I could never have imagined. This was in 1988 and 1989, during a period of my life when I was doing Zen meditation very intensively, including extended retreats for months at a time. Although I had absolutely no money, and no idea of how I would support myself, much less a child, and I was terrified, the First Precept of Buddhism, not to kill but to cherish all life, might as well have been hung like a flashing neon sign in front of my face. I can’t say whether this was Buddhist-inspired action or not, but I felt, in that specific case, that the moment of insight for me (which has now extended into a 23-year-moment) came about when my son was born and I looked into his eyes for the first time. I recognized him and he recognized me. It was absolutely clear to me that we had traversed innumerable rebirths in connection to one another, and I was now responsible for fulfilling the mother role and he was responsible for fulfilling the child role in this go-round, and that although we each had independent free will, we could never not be in relation to one another. I could also see that, although my karmic ties with other human beings might be weaker than the powerful bond with my baby, that in fact they were there, and through them my karmic ties to all life forms and all non-organic forms as well. In that moment of insight I became everyone’s mother and I became everyone’s child. This is still very clear to me today. I may not like you and you may not like me, and we may have never met one another, and we may not even live in the same time period, but we are still fluidly related to one another. The question is, how will I carry out my roles and responsibilities toward you? When someone makes a request of me, such as this request to answer the questions in this interview, I take it pretty seriously. I do what I can to come forward to you in the most authentic way I know how to do. What you do is up to you.
Imagine it’s 2022 – what types of inspiring actions are Buddhist activists up to? Mass protests, corporate infiltration, others?
Let’s see, you’re talking about ten years from now. The inspiring action that I see Buddhist activists are up to, worldwide, is in championing universal education, through culturally appropriate initiatives. And this universal education (for all people of all ages) would include:
- Training in critical thinking skills
- Environmental study
- Training in participatory decision-making and conflict resolution
- Cultural humility
- Studying the histories of social change movements
- Mental and physical health education, including science-based strategies to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma
- Training in diversity thought leadership
- Experiencing and practicing kindness toward ourselves and others
I’m a member of Buddhist Peace Fellowship because …
My original Zen Buddhist training, in Ann Arbor, Michigan emphasized that we need to constantly manifest our spiritual values and realization through behaviors in everyday life. BPF has, for me, been a forum and a community in which to think about and explore what it means to be a Buddhist person involved in my community here in Oakland, California, and in the wider circles of communities of which I am a member, nationally and globally.
Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda is a Buddhist teacher, author, mentor, and community activist. She teaches meditation retreats for people of color, women, and social justice activists nationally. She is a core teacher at East Bay Meditation Center near where she lives in Oakland, California. Her website and blog can be found at www.mushim.wordpress.com.