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Lions Roar : January 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 65 My Book of Peace is Gone From MAXINE HONG KINGSTON’s TheFifthBook ofPeace If a woman is going to write a Book of Peace, it is given her to know devastation. I have lost my book—156 good pages. A firestorm blew over the Oakland-Berkeley hills in October of 1991, and took my house, things, neighborhood, and other neighborhoods, and forests. And the lives of twenty-five people. I almost reached my manuscript, typescript, printouts, and disks in time. I was driv- ing home from the funeral ceremonies for my father. I have lost my father. He’s gone less than a month; we were having the full-month ceremony early, Sunday day off. Never before had I driven by myself away from Stockton and my parents’ house. I turned on public radio for the intelligent voices, and heard that the hills were burning.... My Book of Peace is gone. Suddenly, I felt rushing at me—this fire movie is about to run in reverse; smoky ghosts will hurry backward into rising houses and trees, refill them, and pull them upright—I felt coming into me—oh, but here all along inside chest and stomach and all around me and out of the smoking ground—Idea. Idea has weight and life; I can feel it. Ideas are pervious to firebombs, which shoot through them without harming them. Americans own too many things. I can feel Idea because I am thingless, and because of my education, thinking, reading, meditation. I heard the monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh say the Five Wonderful Precepts, which are the moral foundations of Buddhism. Having ethics, even intentions and aspirations, turns you in the right direc- tion, toward some lasting idea about good. I am a manifestation of Idea, food that makes blood, bones, muscles, body, self. I stood alive in the fire, and felt ideas pour into me. I know why this fire. God is showing us Iraq. It is wrong to kill, and refuse to look at what we’ve done. (Count the children killed, in “sanctions”; 150,000, 360,000, 750,000. “Collateral damage.” The counts go up with each new report. We killed more children than soldiers. Some of the children were soldiers.) For refusing to be conscious of the suffering we caused—the camera-eye on the bomb went out as it hit the door or roof at the center of the crosshairs—no journalists allowed, no witnesses—we are given this sight of our city in ashes. God is touching us, showing us this scene that is like war. I’m not crazy; I’m not unpatriotic. People who’ve been there, who saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the A-bombs, the Ong Plain and Hué after the firefights, com- pared our fire to war. Oakland Fire Captain Ray Gatchalian, Asian American, Green Beret, Vietnam vet, Panama vet, said, “When I went up in the helicopter the day after the fire, I couldn’t even film, I was so stunned. You have to remember, I went to Mexico City after the earthquake where hundreds and thousands of people were dis- placed, but when you see your own environment, people you know, whose homes were burned to the ground, I was stunned, in total shock. That day, one house burned every five seconds. Seeing it the next morning, it brought me back to the shock and horror of Vietnam. When I looked down on the devastation that day, I thought what an opportunity this would be to bring busloads of people and bus- loads of children and tell them when we, as a country, decide to go to war against somebody, this is what we are going to get. When we decide to send our military and our bombs into a country, this is what we’re deciding to do.” My Book of Peace is gone. And my father is gone. Fatherless. And thingless. But not Idea-less. © From The Fifth Book of Peace, by Maxine Hong Kingston. © 2003 by Maxine Hong Kingston. Published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. exactly synonymous. “Sangha” means a community of spiritual practice, people having spiritual ceremonies together. Friends you socialize with are not what sangha means. Maybe a dozen years ago I realized this. After our house burned down, we planned our new house. Earll, my hus- band, designed a meditation room in one of the rooms. We moved into the house about eight years ago, and we started off having friends staying overnight. These were social friends, beloved community, but they were not the sangha. One day one of them stayed over- night, and I asked her, “Would you like to sit in meditation with me?” It was so embarrassing to say that. It was so hard. I had to think about it and maneuver. It was like proposing to someone. I had known this woman for forty years, and I asked her to sit with me, and she did. Then I said to myself, “Okay. Now I am turning my community into my sangha.” Then another friend came over. This time it was a little easier. I asked her, “Would you want to sit with me?” and she did. Just lately, two new friends came over. One of them was already practicing Japanese tea ceremony, and so she took over the room. She knew what she was doing and would do tea ceremony in there. So gradually my community and my sangha are becoming one. Do you come across this sort of embarrass- ment about “orientalism” with friends? You mentioned the difficulty of proposing meditation to some people when really it’s not such a strange thing to sit and be quiet for a moment. Do you feel ambivalent about certain kinds of practices? When I was young, it would be very uncomfortable, mostly because I saw myself and my family as being so weird and so different from everybody else. I didn’t have the words for how to explain us.ButnowthatIamoldandIhavethe words for it and I see our practices relating to the rest of humanity, it gets easier. ©