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Lions Roar : May 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 56 I imagine there are people who turn to the Buddha because they’ve lost a lot of money. My experience, however, is that al- most everyone I’ve met who has turned to the Buddha did so because they have suffered the end of a love affair. They have lost someone they loved. Perhaps they have lost a country, as well, or parents or siblings or some function of their bodies. But very of- ten, people turn to the Buddha because they have been carried so deeply into their suffering by the loss of a loved one that without major help they fear they will never recover. (I actually love this about Buddhists: that though their reputation is all about suffer- ing and meditating and being a bit low-key sexually and spiritu- ally languid, they are in fact a band of hopeful lovers who risk their hearts in places a Methodist would rarely dare to tread.) This is what happened to me. I had lost my own beloved. The pain of this experience seemed bottomless and endless. Enter my teacher for that moment of my life, the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön and her teachings on a set of tapes called “Awakening Compassion.” Under her guidance, far in the country away from everyone, on my own retreat of one, I learned an ancient Tibet- an Buddhist meditation practice called tonglen, along with the teachings that accompanied it, called lojong. This involved, dur- ing meditation, learning to breathe in the pain I was feeling, not to attempt to avoid or flee it. It involved making my heart bigger and bigger just to be able to hold it all. It involved breathing out relief and happiness for myself and for everyone on Earth who was feeling as miserable as I was. I stayed at this practice for a year. It worked. So that today I sometimes wonder what my suffer- ing over the loss of a loved one was really about. I have almost concluded that it was the love of the Buddha reaching through two thousand and five hundred years wanting me to under- stand that I had some control over how much suffering I endure. Wanting me to try a remedy he had found and to see for myself whether it works. My novel The Color Purple was actually my Buddha novel without Buddhism. In the face of unbearable suffering follow- ing the assassinations and betrayals of the Civil Rights move- ment, I too sat down upon the Earth and asked its permission to posit a different way from that in which I was raised. Just as the Buddha did, when Mara, the king of delusion, asked what gave him the right to think he could direct humankind away from the suffering they had always endured. When Mara queried him, the Buddha touched the Earth. This is the single most important act, to my mind, of the Buddha. Because it acknowledges where he came from. It is a humble recognition of his true heritage, his true lineage. Though Buddhist monks would spend mil- Now I understand that all great teachers love us. This is essen- tially what makes them great. I also understand that it is this love that never dies, and that, having once experienced it, we have the confidence always exhibited by well-loved humans, to continue ex- tending this same love. The Buddha, presumably raised as a Hindu, was no doubt disheartened by its racism; i.e., the caste system that today blights the lives of one hundred and sixty million Indians. Indians who were once called “untouchables” and now call them- selves Dalits, “those broken to pieces.” They are not allowed to own land. They cannot enter the same doors, attend the schools, or drink from the same wells as the so-called “higher” castes. Their shadow must never fall on those above them. They are brutalized and the women raped at will. Niggers of India, they are. Traditionally it is taught that the Buddha discovered some- one old, someone sick, and someone dying, after having lived a very sheltered life, and that because of this suffering, inherent to all humankind, he struck out into the world to find a remedy. There’s no mention, usually, of the horrible caste system, every- where in place in his area, which I personally find impossible to imagine the Buddha ignoring. I like to think of the young prince, Siddhartha, observing this hypocrisy of his native religion, perhaps touching or loving an “untouchable,” and deciding there had to be a better way. A higher truth. I like to think of him leaving his cushy home and delightful family, his loving wife and adorable son, and striking out into the wilderness. Searching for a way humans could rid themselves of the hideous affliction of spirit that forced division and degradation of part of the human family imposes. Which is to say, I felt the Buddha’s spirit long before I began tostudyhiswords.Ifelthimnotasagodorasthesonofagod but as a human being who looked around, as any of us might do, and said to himself: Something here is very wrong. People are such beautiful and wondrous creations, why are they being tortured? What have they done that this should be so? How can there be an end to their suffering? The Buddha sat down. Most of the representations of the Buddha show him sitting down. Sometimes he is lying down. Sometimes he is walking, though this is rare. Sometimes he is shown leaping to his feet and flinging up his arms in joy. Anyone who meditates recognizes these states. First, the sitting. The concentration on the breath. Sometimes the lying down, feeling our connection to the Moth- er, the great support of Earth. There is the walking, which inte- grates our bodies with our mind state. Then there is the feeling of exuberance when we realize we have freed ourselves. Again. How does this happen? The good news is that we can turn our attention away from our oppressors—unless they are directly endangering us to our faces—and work on the issue of our suffering without attaching them to it.