Monday, May 13, 2013

Liberation in the Midst of Suffering

by Ryūmon Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquín Sensei

"Taj Mohammad, center, borrowed money to pay for hospital treatment for his wife
and medical care for some of his children." Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Recently two articles leading with pause-moment headlines landed in my inbox within twenty-four hours of each other. The first one in the Atlantic reminds me “How Racism is Bad for Our Bodies” and the second one, in the Huffington Post, reminds me “Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas,’ Diversity Efforts Address Conflict About Race Among Meditators.”

 I emphasize the reminds me, as these headlines are quite old news when it comes to my experience as a convert Western Buddhist woman presently inhabiting a brown skin, living and practicing Dharma in a farming town in western New England in the United States of America. 

The simultaneous dynamics of racism as the historical bedrock on which the U.S. was built, coupled with the unacknowledged privileged and unnamed racial divide presently existing within white Western convert Buddhist communities, form two of the pillars of my practice as a Buddhist priest and Zen teacher. 

 And yet, as a brown-skin Buddhist woman living in and benefiting from the privileges of class, education, literacy, political voice, ready access to resources such as water, heathcare, a roof, and the expected three meals a day, whatever obstacles I may face daily, these do not compare to the experiences of most women, and albeit, Buddhist women—both monastic and lay—in the rest of the world.

Here is another “pause-moment” headline. This from the New York Times New England edition: “Painful Payment for Afghan Debt: A Daughter, 6.”  The front-page color photograph depicts a young girl named Naghma, sitting in her family hut in one of Kabul’s refugee camps surrounded by mostly boys, some older that she, and a baby held in the arms of another woman, half of her face left off the photograph.

Naghma is wrapped in the red-orange folds of an ankle-length dress, head covered with a purple scarf covering her head and tossed around her neck. The scarf drapes over her right arm to her waist as she brings her slightly closed right hand just below her chin. On her feet, muddy rubber boots. Her eyes looking up, remind me of the natural expectant gaze of a young child who is wondering what comes next. Her father states, “She does not know what is going to happen.”

 A few hours after reading this article, I find myself weeping with gut-shaking sobs wrecking my body.  In part I was suffering from a pulled muscle in my lower back, and had just stepped out of an Epsom salt infused hot bath in an attempt to ease the excruciating physical pain. As my partner, a white, Western convert Buddhist woman, moved in close offering comfort, the words “the suffering of the world is so deep” came out of my mouth, as sobs continued to shake me. 

I then spoke to her of Naghma whose life has been valued at $2,500, the amount of money her father “borrowed over the course of a year to pay for hospital treatment of his wife and medical care for some of his nine children.” Naghma’s three-year-old sibling Janan “froze to death because the family could not afford enough firewood to stay warm in the bitter winter weather.”

 The Buddha told us about suffering, its causes, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Yet, in the vastness of the suffering, I begin to taste the risk of despair.

 I want to believe that Naghma’s suffering will cease. I want to believe that even though she has become, in her short life, a saleable property worth $2,500, that her suffering will indeed cease. I want to believe that although it is a fact that to settle this debt she is to be married to a seventeen-year-old young man, the path to the cessation of suffering is also within Naghma’s reach. I pull back from allowing the question, how is this to be so when I read the young man has already directed his mother to inform Naghma’s family they must stop sending the girl to school, the one thing Naghma just loves. According to the mother, “This is dishonoring us to have my son’s future wife go to school.”

And yet I know, deep in the cave of my heart, in the vastness of the suffering, right there in the midst of an ocean of obstacles, liberation, freedom and joy are possible.

 This is possible not only for young Naghma but, for all children, women, and men in the world. I know this, even when I cannot fathom how it can come about. It is just a knowing. This knowing is the fruit of my practice. A knowing I cultivate each moment to the best of my abilities, and with complete devotion to and faith in the Three Jewels.

 And once again, at this very moment, as I write, the breath stops as I am told of this afternoon’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon in the United States.  Two bombs exploded, two others found unexploded, three deaths so far, and so far 130 injured. Of those injured, twenty-five to thirty of these have lost one or both legs. Right now, only a long, out-breath possible.  And then . . .

Ryūmon H.G. Baldoquín Sensei: Writer, Poet & Editor

Ryūmon Sensei co-founded Two Streams Zen along with Dr. Catherine Anraku Hondorp Sensei, and is guiding teacher at AnRyūJi / Peace Dragon home temple in Westhampton, MA, USA. Ryūmon is also the editor of Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism, an anthology of wisdom and interspection from Western Buddhist practitioners of color.

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