What We Ignore Makes Us Ignorant
Storytelling, Movement Building, and the Second Noble Truth
By Mushim Ikeda
We were taking an easy family hike in Tilden Park, in the hills above Berkeley, California, and I was exhausted. This was around 18 years ago. Raising and being with a young child all day, every day, especially when you don’t have a lot of money, can do that to you. As parents go, I was on the whole fairly receptive, attentive and tolerant a lot of the time, but sometimes all I wanted was a quiet room with a clean bed and a door that locked from the inside, and to sleep undisturbed for as long as I liked. I completely identified with what an old friend wrote to me when he became a father – that worn-down parents can be astounded by the upwelling of “monstrous anger” that might suddenly erupt toward their children. As my young son, his father, my nephew and I walked down the path in the sunshine I distinctly remember thinking, “Maybe everyone will be having so much fun that they’ll leave me alone and I won’t have to do anything for anyone.” I didn’t feel guilty at all. Mostly, I felt hopeful.
Kai, my nephew, who was around 11 at the time, hadn’t seen me in a while. Although he and his older sister Elli aren’t related to us by blood or by adoption, we’re family members, bonded through hundreds of potluck meals, wilderness outings, holiday celebrations, trips to the beach and after-dinner spontaneous skits. Stationing himself at my side, Kai chatted companionably about … something. Having decided that this was my “Me Time,” I deliberately ignored him, faking listening by interjecting, “uh huh!” and “sounds good” and “I see,” into the conversation whenever he paused for a breath.
Suddenly sprinting a few steps ahead, Kai turned around, and blocked the path in front of me. I experienced what’s called in Buddhist meditation samatha – stopping, both physically and mentally. I was surprised.
“I am,” Kai said in a kind but firm tone of voice, “desperately trying to have a conversation with you.”
“You’re right, and I’m sorry I’ve been ignoring you,” I said. I wondered how many times I had ignored what others were trying to tell me personally – or, what they were just trying to express to anyone who would take the time to listen to them.
“We become ignorant when we ignore things.”
Bhante Buddharakkhita, a Ugandan bhikshu (Buddhist monk), said this in a talk on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path some years back, at a People of Color meditation retreat. He was speaking to the Second Noble Truth, the historical Buddha’s analysis of the causes of suffering (dukkha). The Four Noble Truths are said to be the very first teaching that Sakyamuni Buddha gave after his Great Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. When the newly enlightened Buddha broke it down for his first disciples, he said that human suffering and dissatisfaction results from tanha (literally “thirst,” craving, greed), or, it is also said, from the so-called Three Poisons: greed (and craving, clinging), hatred (and aversion), and delusion (and ignorance).
Think about it – ignorance isn’t just something that “isn’t our fault” because we don’t have a Ph.D., or are working two or more jobs and don’t have time to look at the news, or because it’s impossible to know everything. Delusion (not seeing things clearly as they really are) results not only from our fixed views and mistaken ideas, but also from deliberately ignoring things. Fortunately for me, people will, occasionally, stop me in my tracks and insist that I listen. This is not always pleasant. It can be more comfortable not to hear many true stories.
If you’d like, time travel with me back to the end of 1985. In this true story, I’m dressed in gray Korean monks’ clothes, my head shaved, sitting next to the wall at a small kitchen table in a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Phoenix, Arizona. A middle-aged Vietnamese married couple have seated themselves with me, or, more accurately, around me. It would definitely make it awkward for me to even stand up in the small space and escape to the bathroom. Even though or perhaps because I am a stranger to them, they want to tell me, the visiting American Buddhist, their story. It didn’t take long for them to tell it.
In Vietnam, during the war, they say, the man was arrested and thrown into prison. His wife says that she did her best to take care of their young child, and that she would work hard and buy toiletries and things she thought her husband might need and mail them to the prison. However, she had no way of knowing whether these packages ever got to him.
One day their child went to school and all of the children received immunization shots. The shot was contaminated, and the child died. Eventually the parents were able to leave Vietnam and come to the United States. They had never had more children.
The man wants me to know that he blames me, and all U.S. citizens, for the loss of his homeland. “You Americans had everything,” he says, leaning forward and gazing at me intensely. “You had money. You had guns. You had power. And you lost the war.”
There are stories I cannot ignore, and cannot forget.
Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion and precursor to Kuan Yin (who is sometimes called the “goddess of compassion” in Buddhist lore), is also called “the One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” Presumably, Avalokiteshvara does not ignore anyone’s cries or complaints or whispers or rants; but then, we’re talking about a mythical being here, a cosmic spiritual idealized figure who doesn’t get tired or want days off from the job.
I’ve spent a lot of time listening to people talk about their sorrows and their interests since I began Buddhist practice in 1982, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the meditation cushion, listening to non-human cries. At one point, several years ago, I realized that I had built up some pretty strong ideas condemning a group I had labelled “fundamentalist Christians,” even though I didn’t know any personally, so I took up two years of Bible study in my home with my local Jehovah’s Witnesses and made quite a few new friends by listening and learning. And at this moment, I’m sitting in my car listening to passing trucks, and seagulls screeching as they circle over the FoodMaxx store in a shopping center in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. My son, now 25 years old, is getting his teeth cleaned at the dental clinic and I’m hanging out in the parking lot and writing. This moment, while not particularly remarkable, is part of a narrative, therefore, the story of “my” life that is the living thread that connects me at this moment to you in the act of reading.
If I were desperately in need of your help, or vice-versa, this story could be the thread that becomes a lifeline between you and me. What is it that we can accomplish by working together? And when we consider how liberatory movement building happens in this time, in this place, with the people available to us, how will we know the untapped, potential power of people, moving collectively toward common goals, until we begin the journey to hear all our stories, and listen and listen and listen some more?
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.