We’re four days in to Ramadan today — that holy month of Islam that always humbles me. I spent years in Muslim countries, observing Muslims who live their commitment to compassion for the poor. From the moment a white thread is distinguishable from a black one, Muslims around the world give up food & drink.
They give up all luxuries: perfume, sex during the day hours, as well as (for many observant Muslims) TV, music, games… The list is long. More rigourous — and for me, more compelling — than Lent. I mean, what’s chocolate (or even Facebook!) in the grand scheme of things…?
But Ramadan — you give up everything during Ramadan, at least during daylight hours. And in the desert countries and tropical countries of Islam, that means even water. Children as young as 7 & 7 try to keep Ramadan — not because of parental or even cultural pressure, but because they want to. They’re not required to — and it’s hard for a young child to go without water in a country where daytime highs crest 100˚, and humidity is non-existent. Dry heat may not swelter, but it sucks the moisture right out of you. I remember.
What does this have to do w/ Buddhism? Well, since Ramadan ‘is about empathy — feeling the straitened circumstances of the genuinely ‘without’ — isn’t it a kind of tonglen? The Buddhist practice of breathing compassion for others? Isn’t Ramadan — the discipline of hunger, of doing without, of being mindful of the ‘withoutness’ of others — a Muslim form of tonglen? If I offer up the suffering of my Ramadan — my days after days without even essentials, only barely replenished in the evening (the original plan) — isn’t that tonglen?
Once when I was taking a class in meditation, we were just learning tonglen. We were asked to think of people for whom we would gladly suffer — family members, loved ones, heroes and heroines. And then we were asked to think of what really frightened us. I thought of what frightens me — losing my sense of self, becoming my fragile, mindless mother, as she lay w/out knowledge of past or present, trapped within the straitjacket of her Alzheimer’s — and breathed for all of us who fear. It was one of the most profound things I’ve ever done — utterly memorable.
So for me, Ramadan seems far less ‘strange’ than do many religious traditions. Communion, for instance — that seemed weird to me even as a kid. Eat the flesh and blood of your deity?? Yuk! Sorry if that offends anyone, but really? That’s cannibalism! Even as a child I didn’t get that .
But today, as I ate fresh blackberries from the Mennonites at the Farmer’s Market, and drank iced coffee, I felt as though perhaps, tomorrow, I might be strong enough to do Ramadan. Might be able — for a day? — to feel what it’s like to be without. This is a country that talks much about doing away with safety nets. I wonder how many of us really could. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll see if I can do without.
Ramadan Mubarak, to all of us. And Ramadan Kareem — a generous Ramadan to each.