An excerpt from Moonlight Leaning Against an Old Rail Fence: Approaching the Dharma as Poetry
The Congo Women
The Congo women grab their skirts;
they run and hide. They are found out.
Their bodies reel within the tide of vicious
armies, lout-faced boys who never had
a chance to sprout as honored men;
who do not know what they’re about.
They rape and rape and rape again.
The Congo women sway with pride.
Their precious bodies and their lives now
share a sisterhood of shame that is
not theirs. Hundreds of thousands,
none is spared this dark undoing,
cast aside like tattered garments
on a tattered countryside.
The Congo women are our pride.
We own a portion of the shame. Mother,
daughter, sister, bride, how I wish
to know your name, receive the blessing
of your eyes. And to your staggered heart,
my wooing: “Don’t drop out. Your soul
pursue you through your darkest time.
There is a way all hearts that
wake within the world are going.”
Though I am blind and dumb
like all the rest, who are complicit in
this game beyond our knowing.
Commentary: The Congo Women
This poem needed to be included because as human beings we cannot escape facing into the pain of the enormous atrocities and profound violence to the human body and spirit that are woven into our human experience. After all, what kind of transparent world are we talking about, anyway? Some paradisiacal Buddha-field in which Congolese women, Bosnian women, Sudanese women, you-name-it women (and men) aren’t being raped and tortured en masse by armies of insanity and terror? Where some human beings haven’t incited one another to butcher their countrymen wantonly on the streets and in their churches and homes? Where people don’t blow themselves up in crowds at mosques and wedding parties, in acts of great anger and great delusion? In this instance (as on many occasions), it was the inconceivable enormity of the continuing tragedy in the Congo that spoke to me so deeply.
How do we fathom and how do we hold such a world? What does it ask of us? How do we understand it in the light of Buddhadharma? We are not even speaking here of the institutionalized violence employed on behalf of our statecraft, our business-craft, or our “defense”-craft, though it has its hand in places we wouldn’t imagine. Aside from all policy justification or political, economic, or historical analysis, Buddhism manages to deconstruct it all very simply and exactly as greed, anger, and ignorance.
But we also hear stories of specific acts of devastating violence in all parts of the world. And though most of us are fortunate not to be living in the middle of such extreme and overt violence and suffering, we have created an extended nervous system on this planet – the electronic news media – that enables it to live in us. The media stimulates and exploits us daily with stories of outrage and violence with which we have no personal or bodily experience, and to which we often can bring no presence of mind nor clear moral response; but which only keeps us more agitated and locked into a virtual world of negative imagery and drama. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, we may find ourselves to be present of heart, and broken of heart, for all the suffering that occurs within the immediate sphere of our own lives, as well as for the extreme violence and suffering that is part of our human history, or of which we are informed by the daily news.
No doubt we have deep receptors within our own karmic memory, having experienced it all. Just as Tibetan teachers like to point out that in the infinite karmic history of souls everyone we meet has been our mother at some point, so have we experienced every atrocity and, at some point or other, perpetrated it. I know I have been both the inmate at Auschwitz and the abusive prison guard. I know I have been both the hero and the collaborator.
But wait a minute. What does any of this have to do with our river of light; with absolute reality; with nonduality; with awakened transparency of being; with enlightenment? Aren’t I only speaking here of the world of dream and illusion? Am I sending negative energy into the world by focusing on stories of suffering? How do I have compassion for suffering without perpetuating illusion and negativity? This seems to be a confusing issue for some who contemplate spiritual reality; so let’s try to look at it clearly.
The first hallmark of spiritual health is our capacity to respond to things as they are from a place of conscious and loving presence. This is clearly not negativity. Our “negativity,” on the other hand, is defined by the extent to which we are unable to embrace reality with an open heart, by which we regularly dramatize our reactive judgments through reactive imagery, speech, and behavior, and the constriction of our life energy. It is quite easy to become habituated – even addicted – to this kind of negativity in our life, and to allow the “daily news” to exploit it. Then, in a sense, we are giving energy to the same underlying suffering and illusion. However, the recognition of suffering, and the process by which suffering is perpetuated, is not in itself negativity. It is, after all, the first of Buddha’s “noble truths.” The problem is that we routinely get caught in manufacturing a reactive drama that keeps us lost in negative imagery and negative emotional patterns. It is when we recognize and forsake the drama that we are truly able to empathize and hold the pain of another without shutting down our awareness or our hearts, and we can respond appropriately from what is most alive and awake in us. This is an essential strength of our humanity.
Mahayana Buddhism has looked deeply into this question and given it a lot of attention. From the most fully developed Mahayana Buddhist point of view, the mental content and delusions we project onto the world – which are the basis for all violent actions – are totally false, and their imputed reality is nonexistent. But the resultant fact of suffering is real, if relative, and not to be denied or dramatized, but responded to with all the compassion of our being. Our lives will make clear to each of us individually the appropriate or actual theater of our availability, the differing contexts in which we are each able to offer genuine presence and service to one another and to the greater community.
This compassion of being is integral to what Buddhists call bodhicitta, or enlightened heart. Bodhicitta is the underlying nature of reality to serve the efflorescence and fulfillment of being in all its manifestation. It is otherwise said to seek the “salvation,” enlightenment and happiness of all sentient beings. It is neither grandiose nor dismissive. It does not deny, neither is it negated by, our human capacity to generate destruction and suffering out of our greed, anger, ignorance, and indifference. In the relative sense, it is a quality of selfless dedication of heart and mind to the welfare of all being that we deliberately cultivate as part of our spiritual development. It is the activity of a self learning to care for other selves, to extend compassion in all circumstances of suffering, and to seek enlightenment only for the sake of enlightenment for all. This is relative bodhicitta.
Should our realization allow us to apprehend the underlying, nondual ground of being, to see beyond the relative illusion of “separate selves”; to see, as Buddha expressed, that all things are already empty of self, perfect and enlightened by their very nature: this realization does not separate us from the world of suffering, but only deepens the foundation of our compassion. This is absolute bodhicitta. Bodhicitta then, is not only a human aspiration or a relative compassionate response, it is the very ground of being itself, whose inherent nature extends or flows indiscriminately like water through all planes of illusion or relativity. It doesn’t say, “Sorry, Mac, I’ve read all about you. I know there’s no self. Get over it.” That would be relativeness; that would be duality. Bodhicitta is absolute. There is awakened presence. There is emptiness dancing. There is absolute love. But there is no ivory tower of enlightenment. No gated community of the heart. So we needn’t be shy to face into the world of human experience; to embrace human suffering, and to allow our natural compassion and emotional response to become an expression of absolute compassion.
The great truth is not in retreat from the nightmare worlds of human experience. To say that heaven and hell are a creation of the mind is not to say that heaven and hell don’t exist. They are manifested psychically and physically moment by moment by the capacities of the mind. There appear to be infinite worlds, infinite sub-bardos of experience and of human functioning, in which the human being is capable of functioning in coherence with his or her divine nature or in total incoherence with that nature. It is that nature that doesn’t vary; not the manifest acts of the world. And that nature – bodhicitta – stands present before both heaven and hell.
Thus later Mahayana thought distinguishes three relative levels, or aspects, we might say, of reality. The first level is the totally false conceptual or imaginary world that we project upon reality. It has no real or objective referent. This is the deluded mind of ego, separation, greed, anger and ignorance fueling the self-centered behavior out of which we create our karma, generating suffering for ourselves and others. The second level is the simple reality of the suffering world created by this karma. It is relatively true, having been generated by our own karmic delusions. That is, it has been created out of a web of delusion, and is thus not fundamentally true; but whereas delusions are to be seen through, suffering itself is to be attended to. Our response to this world of suffering comes spontaneously from the compassionate expression of our own Buddha-nature, the place of no delusion and no projection. This is regarded as the third level, or absolute reality. In sum, the Mahayana path is, ultimately, to see through delusion (1), and respond compassionately to suffering (2), from a place of enlightenment (3), that realization that recognizes all as its own radiant face. You might ask: Isn’t there a level two-and-a-half, for those of us who aren’t enlightened? The moment of selfless compassion without projection is already an expression of enlightenment.
In this way we are inspired to realize that absolute simple transparency or love out of which all reality arises, while in no way making secondary, or distancing ourselves from, this world of relativity and suffering. Rather, we are continually rekindled to engage compassionately the manifest world of suffering human beings. For after all, this suffering is the counterpoint and the very invitation to the manifestation of our divine nature, or Buddha nature. The world of human suffering, karmic consequence, and moral choice is itself the nondual reality, the intimate face of God, or original mind.
The scale of the warfare that has been going on in parts of Africa is – in the number of countries that have been involved, the millions being killed, and the massive devastation – the equivalent of our past world wars. Its atrocities mirror so many other atrocities that have been part of the common fare of our daily news. We may focus on the violence, but it is fundamentally news of social disruption, ethnic and tribal passions and delusions and, not least, current political and economic manipulation.
In parts of Africa, as elsewhere, climate changes, population and territorial pressures, social or economic iniquities that are in part legacies of conquest or of colonial manipulation, set the stage for conflict. Our instinctive and hormonal endowment has geared us to be aggressive, tribal, and protective in the face of perceived threats to security. And we have no doubt inherited many cultural patterns of warfare, raiding, and ritualized aggression. Yet human beings are not innately inclined to hate or make war against one another; nor are we by nature intolerant of other races or other religions. It is the fundamental perception of security that supports the blossoming of our more inclusive and more integrative brain functions, including our innate capacity for creativity, problem-solving, partnership, tolerance, attunement, empathy, and altruism.
Thus our evolutionary history wires us in part for protectiveness and aggression; and yet we are also already wired to develop beyond them. But when a climate of insecurity and fear pervades it can affect the very neurological development and function of the organism, such that these creative, altruistic, and integrative capacities are overridden or left undeveloped – “never have a chance to sprout” – by instinctive black-and-white fight-or-flight responses that are designed to be black and white. The neurological infrastructure that allows deeper attunement to self and others is literally unavailable; nor is there sufficient cultural modeling available to encourage its activation. Then it is easy to exploit the hormones of aggression.
When there is a fundamental wound in the psyche or in the social body – present and past stress of uprootedness, disconnection, scarcity, or fear (all of which are often systematized in the society and in the state) – then that wound can be inflamed and manipulated along racial, religious, or ethnic lines by fundamentalist religious and tribal narratives exploited by the self-centered economic and political interests of the few. This has been true in Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Although here in the U.S. the level of political and social development is vastly different, we can see the ways in which the dynamics of woundedness and fear also largely govern our own history and politics. The drama of woundedness, separation, manipulation, and further wounding is central to the dream (and central to our human history); and to the endless karmic cycles of cause and effect, of greed, anger and ignorance. What is called “the dharma” is the teaching that shows us the way out – in whatever form and in whatever way that teaching comes to us.
Clearly, the perpetrators of violence are always victims too: of their own ignorance, of manipulation by greater forces, and by the whole host of concurrent causes and conditions. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his poem about the rape of a refugee girl – a “boat person” – by a Vietnamese pirate, writes that if the girl and the pirate had been subject to different causes and conditions, he would have been the refugee girl, and she would have been the pirate. And further, he says, “I myself would be the pirate or the girl if subject to the same causes.” Until there is liberating awareness in the midst of causes and conditions, “we do not know what we’re about.” Jesus, looking down from his agonized perch, sees this clearly and compassionately, and says, essentially, “They do not know what they’re about. They do not know who they are.”
The Congo women sway with pride; or, as we have used the word earlier, with virtue. This virtue is the natural and expressive pride of life to be itself; the virtue of the self-nature of all beings. It is music and song and the capacity to nurture. It is the swaying of the hips. This pride is shamed as the earth itself is shamed by the shameful acts of others. But they are also our pride, these beautiful women. All life is our pride, our beloved Shakya; and we sway too with that sisterhood of being. How I wish my sisters to be free to declare themselves; to whisper their eyes’ secrets, and to stand and to heal in the fullness of their humanity. As I call to them and woo the goddess within them, I say, “Just to know you by your name, to fully embrace the reality of your individual humanity, would make me a richer man.” Yes, they have wounded you deeply, but they cannot take God from your eyes, even if she is in exile there.
This is not an “African” problem. We are all intricately entwined, at both individual and group levels, in the karmic and moral knot of this human catastrophe. First, we are entwined through a collective colonial history that continues to provide the essential model of how we create wealth in the developed world – the exploitation of resources and markets, and the manipulation of land and peoples, that erodes the intactness of cultures and the primary and reciprocal relationship to the earth on which our humanity largely depends, and whose loss makes atrocity possible. Second, through our continued collaboration in demanding those specific goods – as part of a way of life we take for granted – whose production seems to depend on this manipulation and exploitation. Third, through an elaborate cosmic web of cause and effect beyond our knowing, but to which we must bring moral and spiritual responsibility as the other face of transparency. For in relation to our Congolese sisters, and in relation to all living beings who share this web, there runs across the karmic warp of our complicity the essential woof of our intimacy. This is the heartbreaking poignancy, the vulnerability and tenderness wanting to be spoken, the grief of our deepest memory arising out of our amnesia and disconnect, to shake our hypnotic trance of separation, and to be cried out across time and space.
If we start from the ground of conscious loving presence – which is not only our “moral” ground but our actual ground – and the equality of worth of all human beings, then any action that disregards the absolute integrity and wholeness of another, or of his or her equal relationship to the fruits of the earth, is an immoral act. And the exploitation or denial of another’s wholeness through the exercise of physical, political, or financial power or manipulation, even unwittingly and at a distance, is oppression or enslavement of one form or another. If we look at the world with these eyes, lifted from our systemic sleep, we see here, in the midst of all the wealth, comfort, and liberal lifestyle that we take for granted, that it depends on the enslavement of people – and materials. That is, it depends on a conventional flattening of consciousness that reduces all reality and all beings, including the earth, into exploitable objects in the satisfaction of our arrogance or narcissistically conceived needs. Such consciousness would also find it absurd to ask the earth if she wishes to be mined, making neither material nor ritual attempts to repay or to restore, let alone to restrain; or to honor the earth for her bounty – an awareness and a moral sensibility long ago abandoned.
These moral considerations are inherent in the precepts and in the Noble Eight-Fold Path of liberation that are central to the Buddha’s earliest teaching. “Right livelihood” is that livelihood that is not based on the immoral exploitation of others or of the earth – neither of the labor or the resources of others at the one end, nor of the needs, desires, or consumption patterns of others at the other end. Conversely, right livelihood is also that work that has its own integrity, that is not subject to exploitation or enslavement by others or by immoral systems. Similarly, the injunction in the precepts to refrain from intoxicants is aptly expanded in the interpretation of Thich Nhat Hanh to mean the abstaining from addictive patterns of consumption; which calls us to our moral responsibility as consumers not to be intimidated and exploited either by our own desires or by the manipulations of the marketplace; but to understand what systems we support by our behavior, and to take moral responsibility for that. All of which is very inconvenient.
This is not to suggest some new popular crusade that all must adopt to be morally or politically correct. It is one thing to engage in political or ecological critique. It is another thing to engage in a conscious and principled activism, which is a whole other book. It is still another to see truly into the complex karmic and moral fabric of the world, without denial, and with humility and compassion. To do so, not from a place of reactive drama, but with awakeness and presence of heart, is intrinsic to enlightenment.
The great Indian saint Sant Ajaib Singh Ji once summed up the path by saying, “Do not intimidate anyone, and do not be intimidated by anyone.” This, then, is both morality and freedom. And this moment is the very world – the world of dreams, the world of causes and conditions, the world of moral responsibility – in which transparency is working as the pervasive truth. The absolute and the relative have no two sides. They are both at once the vast expanse and the intimate expression of prajnaparamita. And they are simply you.