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A New Story of Us: Storytelling, Movement Building & the 4th Noble Truth

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.

Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian writer

*This article by Mushim Patricia Ikeda originally was published on Turning Wheel Media on October 28th, 2014. In the coming months, we plan on occasionally revisiting great articles from our recent past, which we hope will inspire both long term readers and those new to Turning Wheel Media.

Succulent plant. Spiraling leaves.

The Buddha taught the Fourth Noble Truth as eightfold:

1. Right Understanding (Samma ditthi)
2. Right Thought (Samma sankappa)
3. Right Speech (Samma vaca)
4. Right Action (Samma kammanta)
5. Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva)
6. Right Effort (Samma vayama)
7. Right Mindfulness (Samma sati)
8. Right Concentration (Samma samadhi)

This Eightfold Path is said to be the path to liberation from craving, clinging, greed; from anger, hatred, ill will, aversion; and from ignorance and delusion. It is often depicted as a big wheel with eight spokes, the Wheel of Dharma (Dharmachakra).

This is the fourth and last in a series of essays on socially engaged Buddhism and the Buddha’s basic teaching of the Four Noble Truths, or Four Truths for Noble Ones, in which I’ve focused on the theme of Storytelling and Movement-Building. To put it in plain speech:

As I see it, we evolved, along with a marvelous array of other living beings, on a planet that has supported a profoundly beautiful web of life forms. As human beings, we somehow developed considerable smarts, inventing life-saving medical procedures and epic poetry and iPhones and travel to the moon and much more, yet we’ve also managed to fuck things up. How? The causes of this massive fail are, from what I can see, exactly as the Buddha broke it down in the Second Truth: collective greed, hatred, and delusion.

We can’t reasonably blame it on anyone or anything else: dogs or viruses or heroin or, in the U.S., we can’t blame it all on Democrats or Republicans or immigrants. We can’t blame it on people we call “terrorists,” who may see us as the sources of terror and death. We could, I suppose, blame it on various demons and devils, but they usually appear in a human or anthropomorphized form, not as, say, a demon kumquat or koala bear. In our time on Mother Earth, human beings have caused widespread suffering and destruction. As a mother and someone who cares a great deal about children and young people, I’m the first to say to younger folks: “I’m sorry you’re growing up in current conditions, with global climate change, in a violent society embedded with forms of structural oppression. Whether you forgive us, your parents and grandparents’ generations, or not, you’ve still got to deal with this. And for this we’re all going to need to build movements, the kind of movements that are able to powerfully shift things, not to create a state of unattainable perfection, but to make things better for more people and for the environment. We need a path, we need ways of living and working and interacting to create a more just and mindful and sustainable world. We need many new versions of a Story of Us that is based on things we can do now, on social movements we can build together.”

One of the simplest ways to hear real stories is through an adaptation of an indigenous form, the storytelling circle.

If we want things to be different and better, we need to think differently and we need to act differently. As Grace Lee Boggs has said, the (r)evolution we need is to radically reimagine how we do systems of work and education and government and religion and what approaches we take to dealing with the effects of violence and wastefulness. We need to heal ourselves, as individuals and as communities, and head together in the direction of awakening. We need to reinvent the Wheel of Dharma through our bodies and breath, through a billion different, real-life stories of people struggling to create right livelihood, of being liberated through a flash of right view, of eliminating the suffering caused by destructive thoughts through right concentration, of forming healthy communities raising healthy, cheerful children through right effort.

We can read and listen to news media, but those stories go through multiple filters of selectivity and editing before they reach us. How do we hear the stories of real people in our own communities as a function of Right Speech? One of the simplest ways is through an adaptation of an indigenous form, the storytelling circle. People of all ages and all backgrounds can easily be trained to lead them and to model what a story is and how to tell one. I urge you to give it a try.

I was a volunteer literacy tutor and volunteer literature teacher for four years in an Oakland public high school while my son was a student there. Like most Oakland public schools, this high school’s student body was mostly students of color – African American, Latina@, Asian American – with a handful of white kids. Many of the students came from low-income families; some were undocumented immigrants.

The year after my son graduated, I was invited back to lead a community storytelling circle that was part of a healing process. A new student had started that school year by humiliating and bullying a ninth grader, and had proceeded from there with offenses that got worse and worse, culminating in popping out from behind the school district’s crumbling headquarters building when a number of his classmates were walking by at lunchtime, pointing a gun at them, and demanding their cell phones and lunch money. After this, he disappeared and none of his family members would admit to knowing of his whereabouts, leaving the school’s families deeply fearful and stressed. For parents, worrying that you’ll send your children to school or that they’ll go to a shopping mall, and then you get a call saying that they’ve been assaulted, that they are wounded or dead, is one of the worst things imaginable.

At the evening meeting, to which all parents, students, teachers and staff were invited, the principal and some parent leaders opened the meeting, describing the situation briefly and without over-dramatization. I invited those who wished to speak from their own experience to sit in a large circle, and explained that the purpose of the circle was to access the strength and wisdom of the community. Here are the guidelines, which I learned in part from my Dharma sister Naomi Newman, one of the founders of A Traveling Jewish Theatre:

    1. When the circle is opened and its purpose is stated, one person at a time tells their story. No cross-talk is allowed, meaning, no one can interrupt the speaker, analyze or correct them, or comment on what they say or how they say it.
    2. No one is allowed to speak for another person’s experience; they must speak mindfully from their own experience only. Parents and guardians cannot speak for their children. Marital partners cannot speak for one another.
    3. People can take turns going around the circle in a clockwise fashion, or do it “popcorn” style by speaking when they are ready to do so.
    4. People can choose to pass if they wish to listen but not speak.
    5. Most important of all, be brief. At the beginning, the facilitator says: “Here is what a story is: a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has one or more people in it, and something happens. That is all.” The facilitator models the process with a true story from their own experience, refraining from interpretation, speculation, analysis, and apologizing: When I was at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time, this happened to me. I said and did this. The other person(s) said and did that. This was the result for me. The end. The story might take one to two minutes. This is quite different from the way that most of us tell stories. It is a practice.

When everyone has had an opportunity to tell their story, there can be a second round if time permits.

  • The facilitator thanks everyone and invites a brief round of appreciations. The circle is closed.

There’s something magical yet real that happens in a storytelling circle. Unlike many ordinary discussions about contentious or anxiety-producing topics, the circle recognizes multiple, non-competing realities; it temporarily lessens the gap in power differentials because no one is proclaimed as the expert, or is allowed to dominate the time and space; and it is based on the assumptions that we have what we need when we hear as many voices as possible, that each voice has its own wisdom, and that each story is part of a greater reality which, once it is seen and heard, has within it a path to clarity regarding next steps, or Right Action.

Storytelling circles are one of the most empowering tools a community has to embody the Eightfold Path in a way that manifests Right Mindfulness. And the intention to encourage such circles to build movements of social well-being is, I think, Right Intention.

In the case of the storytelling circle I’m describing, at the Oakland public high school, I don’t know what other people’s experiences were, exactly. What I perceived was that as each story was told, a feeling of strength, confidence, and calmness began to build up. People of all ages relaxed; their faces opened up. One father said, “I was just getting ready to talk about what happened to my daughter, then I remembered that I need to stick to my own experience. She is here tonight and it is up to her whether she wishes to speak.” The level of respect went up; the sense of isolation and fear went down. Because the circle guidelines did not allow for lengthy opinionating, there was no scapegoating and no criticism voiced. Only together were we able to get closer to a more accurate picture of where we were as a whole community, to get closer to a functioning Right View.

I think that at the end of that meeting we were unified in knowing exactly what we all wanted: for the young people to be safe so that their education could proceed. Perhaps if you live in an economically privileged or gated community, far from areas that you may describe as “inner city neighborhoods” or “the ghetto,” this may seem like a relative given. Or, considering incidents like the Columbine shootings, perhaps not. But to low-income families of color in urban areas with gang activity, weapons checkpoints at school entrances, and militarized police forces, the safety of our children is huge. We just want our kids to go to school, to be well educated, and to come home safely. We want them to have a chance to live sustainably and to thrive, to be happy, and to feel connected to community.

I began this series on socially engaged Buddhism and the Buddha’s Four Truths in the spring of this year, with a story about my closest spiritual friend, Ven. Suhita Dharma. Bhante Suhita died about one year ago, very suddenly, in his early seventies; I miss him very much and I dedicate this series of essays to his memory. As the first African American to be ordained a Buddhist monk, Bhante was clear about his own suffering, and he set about fulfilling the Eightfold Path through his spiritual practice and his work in the world. He remembered Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. He was one of the most compelling storytellers I’ve met, and he provided me with wise Dharma counsel and joyful energy for over twenty years.

When I feel despair that we as a people can become mindful enough, awake enough to bring about the transformative movements we need now, I remember him, and what I remember becomes a story that inspires me and guides me in my own movement-building work in mindfulness for social justice activists and agents of change.

So, please: if you’re a Buddhist practitioner, gather your spiritual friends, your kalyana-mittas, close to you through all means possible. Make new friends wherever your practice leads you. Together, tell all your stories, then go forth and listen to stories from people with whom you greatly disagree. You don’t need to agree with others in order to learn from them. Become equanimous, large and strong and inclusive of the many beings. Figure out what you need to do and what you have the capacity to do. Above all, join with others to build joyful movements that can move us all in the direction of non-hatred, non-fear, and nonviolence.

Written while on retreat at Metta Forest Monastery in southern California, October 2014

MushimIkeda

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.

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.

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Comments (1)

  • Arindam

    : “I’m sorry you’re growing up in current conditions, with global climate change, in a violent society embedded with forms of structural oppression.”

    To which I’d add:

    “I’m sorry you’re subjected to an irrational and inhuman financial system that makes men subservient to money, instead of the other way round.”

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