Friday, September 26, 2014

Che Guevara, Buddhism, and Jumping to Conclusions

What the hell does Che Guevara, the infamous Cuban revolutionary, have to do with Buddhism? I'm guess it's probably never been on the radar for most of you, and I'm also imagining that the very mention of the name sparks powerful reactions for some of you. Freedom fighter. Compassionate doctor. Communist troublemaker. Armed terrorist. Maybe one or more of these phrase fit how you place him. Certainly, the man has been romanticized on the one hand by people on the left who sport t-shirts with his image, and/or have seen movies like "The Motorcycle Diaries" or who have read his writings about the impact of colonialism, capitalism, and the dream of a unified American continent (north and south). Whatever the chosen image, he almost always seems to be larger than life.

As part of my continued exploration of Latin American Buddhism, I'm reviewing some articles from the Spring 2001 issue of Turning Wheel, the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Thanks to the Jizo Chronicles for the reminder about this issue of Turning Wheel, which I had, long forgotten, tucked away in my closet.

Lourdes Arguelles, in her guest editorial, writes of a humid Cuban day in late 1959 when she, as a high school student, was sitting on the steps of the University of La Habana, reading a book of Pablo Neruda's poetry. She says she was waiting to march in one of the many demonstrations that occurred at that time in Cuba when she looked up and say Che Guevara standing next to her and her friends. He asked what she was reading, and after some approval of Neruda on his part, she said she, for some reason asked him "Someone once told me that Neruda had lived in Asia and was interested in the Buddha. Do you know if he has anything written about that?"

Arguelles goes on to say she really didn't know why she had asked him that, of all things, and how her friends wondered, in amazement, why she spoke of the Buddha of all things to this powerful political figure. And then she writes that a few weeks later, her father, who worked closely with Guevara at the time, arrived home one day with a package. It was another book of poetry, with a letter in it that said "Che said to tell you he looked very hard for what you wanted but couldn't find it. He sends you another book of Neruda poems for your collection." What's totally interesting to me is that her father knew nothing of the earlier exchange; he simply brought the message and book home to his daughter.

Now, maybe this is just a nice story, you might say. In fact, some of you might think it's propaganda to support a more positive image of the man. Whatever you think of Guevara, it's worth noting that this story is a great example of how people - especially well known people - are usually much more than we see. The human mind tends to compartmentalize well-known people, or even people we know, by ignoring the whole picture, or assuming there's nothing beyond what we know.

This iconic figure who sought an end to capitalism and injustice globally, and who also relied heavily on violence measures to do so, was also just another person in the world. This simple act of kindness on Che's part, never mentioned in the biographies and love-ographies or hate-ograpies, brings him back down to earth. It's also the case that we could probably easily find stories about the guy making mundane mistakes, which again would temper the dramatic, larger than life character he has become.

It seems to me that it is our job, as Buddhist practitioners, to drop off all pre-conceived stories about both those in our lives, and about those who lived in the past, and to be ready and open to be surprised. This story of Arguelles provided a moment of surprise, an opportunity to shake the story I had about Guevara as solely a sometimes inspirational, sometimes destructive revolutionary. Maybe he had no interest whatsoever in the Buddha and his teachings; that's irrelevant. What is relevant is that he took the time for this young woman, even if that effort was at least partly motivated by ties to her father or to desires that she would support his politics. She wasn't anyone important, so even if his motives were tainted in the ways I just suggested, it really didn't benefit him much. So I see this as an act of caring. Someone asked him about a writer he loved, and he tried to find something else out about that writer for the other. As a writer who loves many other writers, both living and dead, I completely get this act. I've done it myself, without any belief that I would gain by locating information about writer X.

Maybe this is a somewhat naive take on this situation, but I really don't get the sense that Arguelles is lying about her story. She finishes up her introduction to the issue of Turning Wheel saying that even though she has rejected Che's "modernizing and violent insurrection philosophy" and that his efforts brought "grief" to her life and the lives of countless others, she nevertheless dedicated the issue to his memory.

He clearly left a powerful impression on her as a teenager, with that simple act of kindness. And I offer this to you now as an effort to shake those images you have of whomever you have deemed "evil" or "horrible beyond repair." We are never solely our worst acts, or our best acts even. Our actions in total are the ground upon which we stand. May we remember that every day, for the rest of our lives.

And just for your reading pleasure, here's a favorite poem of mine from Neruda entitled "Ode to the Lemon." Enjoy!


Ode To The Lemon
by Pablo Neruda

From blossoms
released
by the moonlight,
from an
aroma of exasperated
love,
steeped in fragrance,
yellowness
drifted from the lemon tree,
and from its plantarium
lemons descended to the earth.

Tender yield!
The coasts,
the markets glowed
with light, with
unrefined gold;
we opened
two halves
of a miracle,
congealed acid
trickled
from the hemispheres
of a star,
the most intense liqueur
of nature,
unique, vivid,
concentrated,
born of the cool, fresh
lemon,
of its fragrant house,
its acid, secret symmetry.

Knives
sliced a small
cathedral
in the lemon,
the concealed apse, opened,
revealed acid stained glass,
drops
oozed topaz,
altars,
cool architecture.

So, when you hold
the hemisphere
of a cut lemon
above your plate,
you spill
a universe of gold,
a
yellow goblet
of miracles,
a fragrant nipple
of the earth's breast,
a ray of light that was made fruit,
the minute fire of a planet.

*Note, an earlier version of this post appeared on Dangerous Harvests on 11/29/09

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mainstream American Yoga Avoids Suffering


After co-teaching a workshop on yoga and other movement practices in our social movements, I have been watching folks talk online about Yoga Journal and the state of American yoga these days. There's a lot that can be said in this regard, from the continued influence of colonialist narratives, to the heavy commodification of the practice. However, today I'd like to focus on this:

Much of the modern American yoga world avoids suffering.

Thinking that people are already challenged enough, yoga teachers, studios, and the like spin everything towards bliss, or its poorer cousin comfort.

Which seems to be a balm for the mundane stress of office jobs, traffic, or dealing with upset children, but leaves people absolutely stranded when something like loosing a parent happens. Or how to process the ongoing imperialist war machine. Or how to face, and possibly effectively challenge systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia. Or how to be and act in ways that resist eco-cide, and promote eco-centricism on an individual and societal scale. In other words, how to be a liberated being in the world.

For several years now, I have regularly said this verse at or near bedtime from the 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva:

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

These four lines have been more useful to me than a thousand yoga platitudes. But they also are, if you actually put them into practice, challenging words to swallow. When I bitch and moan and fuss about the "little cares," I'm forgetting them. When I fake being happy, or dismiss something bothering me as "nothing," I'm forgetting them. When I indulge in easy hatred towards the folks in power positions that are creating so much hell in the world, I'm forgetting that buddhanature is boundless, and that my liberation is bound up with everyone elses'.

Over the years, I have worked with perhaps four or five excellent yoga teachers. All of them gave suffering a fair shake; all of them understood the balance between challenging people to face their lives as they are, and also to be kind to yourself and relax; and the majority of them saw the teachings not just as individual tools, but also as gateways into understanding and acting in the world around us. In this, working on a political campaign or being part of a collective effort to develop new alternatives was just as worthy of a dharma talk as facing emotional challenges, or becoming more intimate with the breath or some other object of meditation. Along these lines, taking up Warrior Pose (see teaching image above) can more easily be seen as a training ground for cultivating the strength to stay grounded in the midst of a protest, or picket line, or heated meeting with a public official.

As I see it, American Yoga is not devoid of bodhisattvas - to use Buddhist language - it's just flooded with people who are essentially trading in the destructive addictions our our society people use to cope, with something that is more beneficial, but ultimately is still just a coping mechanism.

Being able to cope without destroying yourself is a big plus. But what happens when the bottom falls out on the coping mechanism? What if, in being able to cope more, you're also aiding the continuation of the systems of oppression and suffering that brought on much of the very misery you sought relief from in the first place?

The best medicine goes straight to the roots, taking out that which feeds all the surface-level disorders. Sometimes, it acts swiftly; other times, it slowly seeps in, like Shantideva's words above have for me.

In any case, perhaps American yoga can take a cue from the Buddha and turn more directly towards suffering, individually and collectively. This won't solve the myriad of issues with the American yoga scene, but in my book, it would be a step in the right direction.