Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

an Okie girl finds the Buddha ~

Occasionally people ask me how (why?) I became a Buddhist. And the deal is… I didn’t, actually.At least , not until quite late, and then only if you count my bodhisattva vow a few years ago. Long after I identified as a  Buddhist, in other words.

So what turns an Okie girl, raised in the Methodist church (at least some of her life), into a Buddhist? How did I go from competitive Bible verse memorisation and vacation Bible school to following my breath? Or have I been a kind of Buddhist since I was a small girl, growing up in a villa on a street in a city far, far away…?

I grew up, I wrote once, in a house with bars on the windows. In a country whose very name has come to mean war, for Americans ~ Việt Nam. Buddhism, Taoism, animism and Catholicism were all around me. They smelled like incense and strings of flowers and rice and rain. Protestantism was, by far, the least interesting option. Protestant Sunday School was held at the American School. Another kind of school — albeit w/ colouring, just held on Sunday.

The Buddhist temple I remember was carved from the ropy interior of a banyan tree, at the zoo. Inside, a saffron-robed monk — like the ones who came each day to the iron gate at the end of the drive, holding out their bowls for rice and vegetables — burned incense to the Buddha. This, I remember thinking, this is where God lives. And it may have been. But the Buddha lived there, too.

As a child, I went with the family servants — the cook Chị Tám who ran our house like happy clockwork; the amah, Chị Bốn, her niece; the baby amah, Chị Ba; the driver and the gardener and all the people who made our house the happy mash-up it was — to Taoist temple; to offer paper clothes to the ancestors at Tết; to serve the Buddhist monks who came early each morning for the food served them in their beggar bowls. And I went with Jeannie Adams to catechism and mass, when I stayed over w/ her. And to Hindu temple with Chantharack, my best friend in 3rd grade.

And when we went back to Oklahoma, which soon ceased to feel like home, I went to the small rural Oklahoma church where my cousins went, walking from my grandmother’s house south, up the hill and over the railroad tracks. I had access to more religions than most children know exist.

They all seemed a lot the same: you offered your money, your incense, your prayers or mantras, and you promised to be better. To do better. And then you tried to keep your promise. I liked that the Catholics got to go tell on themselves — confession is a bit scary, but very good catharsis. And I liked that we sang with the Methodists and other Protestants.

But from the very beginning, I felt at home with the Buddhists. And when the Buddhist monk set himself on fire, just around the corner from the villa where we lived, to protest a war I knew very little about as a child, I felt some kind of door open. This, I remember thinking, this is true faith. This is what people who care about others can do.

I am not the stuff of martyrdom, I assure you. But I believe deeply in standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. And social protest was something I recognised as immensely powerful even when I was a young child. It is, I think — coupled with the banyan tree, and the visceral mystery yet practicality of Buddhism — what caught me.

So that’s the start, the ‘once upon a time’ part. There are other reasons, but it really all began, like the movie say, long ago & far away….

the study of letters ~

I’ve always wondered what those of us w/ degrees in the letters — language arts, some folks call them — should call ourselves. History has historians. Science has general scientists, as well as botanists, biologists, micro-biologists, physicists, chemists, etc. We have English majors, English teachers. And for those of us who write, writers — both poets & novelists. In other words? What exactly do English majors do?

It came to me, as I was reading an article about ‘guerrilla librarians‘ at Occupy Wall Street. Good English majors — and w/ all due modesty, I’m a pretty decent one :) — are scholars. We’re the ultimate curious two-year-old, always asking ‘Why? Why? Why?’ If you send me a link, give me a book, offer me a story, and it doesn’t seem… well, plausible, I’m going to look it up. It’s the way I’m made, really. Which is probably what sent me in to English. Books have always been my reality test — even fiction. If it can be imagined, it can happen. And if there’s information out there on it, I’m going to find out.

Journalism is similar, but more ‘useful.’ When I was a medical journalist, people were interested in what I found to be true (dark chocolate is good for you, but only in moderation) and what is false (no real link between autism and vaccinations — honest). There’s far less call for folks who can find out that some esteemed scholar just made stuff up in a book on a famous poet (that happened, too).

I try to teach my students skepticism (an editor I had many years ago used to say — If your mother says she loves you, check it out). I also want them to learn that real life provides endless opportunities for research. So does religion (the whole argument over evolution rests in good part on a misunderstanding of the scientific use of the word ‘theory’). And this is good. But then, I’m a Buddhist — product of a Kalama Sutta mindset: don’t take the word of someone else for anything, just because they’re an ostensible expert (or religious figure). Test it yourself, and see if it works for you.

This is what Buddhism teaches, but it’s great overall pedagogy, as well. I tell my students often: I do several things kind of half-assed, but not scholarship. It’s important. Writing may open your heart, but scholarship — the ability to open your mind to multiple points of view, to search for the most likely of alternatives — will maintain it. It will help you sift truth from urban myth, light from darkness, love from intolerant gossip. And if we carry this curiousity and search for what is so with us, deep within our beginner’s hearts, we’ll do fine. It’s just one of many reasons I think good teaching is a sacrament…:)

suffer the little children… or, the consequences to bullying ~

I will caution you right now: if you believe it’s okay (for any reason whatsoever) to be mean to children in the name of religion, you should find to do other than reading further. Because this is my bit for socially engaged Buddhism, teaching, and my students, friends and family.

Michigan just passed what’s basically a ‘ no-consequences’ bullying bill. For more than 10 years, Michigan social conservatives like the American Family Association have fought any kind of anti-bullying bill, stating that it’s simply a ‘Trojan horse’ to promote the ‘gay agenda.’ In the meantime, 10 children have committed suicide, fatally wounded by homophobic bullies. One per year.

So what has Michigan finally done? Promoted a bill w/ no consequences for ‘religious’ bullying — read: “allowing students, teachers, and other school employees to claim that ‘a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction’ justifies their harassment.” I’m thinking this is NOT what Jesus meant when he said ‘suffer the little children.’ And I can’t help but contrast this attitude — it’s okay to what? Threaten children (because under 18 they’re all children) with the prospect of hell if theyact ‘butch,’ or ‘effeminate,’ or just ‘different’? — with ‘come to me, all of you who are heavy laden.’ Or ‘let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.’ Not to mention the Beatitudes…

The Michigan bill has enormous consequences if passed, if not for the bullies. Oklahoma is considering a similar bill. Where what you believe — your religion — exempts you from treating children with love and respect. Allows you to tell them they will go to hell, because of their sexual identity. (N.B.: please let’s not call it ‘sexual preference’ any longer, as it’s not a ‘preference,’ but  hard-wired into the self and mind and heart.)

I’d be interested in knowing how many parents would accept someone telling their children they were going to hell — which many religions believe about non-believers — because of the child’s choice of religion. If you believe that sexual identity is a choice, not in-born, then it resembles religion, which also is a choice. And I wonder what the parental reaction would be to someone telling a child of one denomination that s/he is going to hell. Over and over. For this ‘choice.’ I’m betting it wouldn’t be okay…

But it’s okay, apparently, to do this to children who ‘look’ or ‘act’ or ‘seem’ gay. Okay to single them out. Okay to make them ashamed of who they are. Okay to frighten them with threats of hell and damnation. And apparently Christian,at least in some people’s eyes.

A former student sent me a Facebook post. Attributed to Felissa Elfenbein’s FB page, the post asks you to crumple a piece of paper. Wad it up, stamp on it, really do a number on it. Now smooth it out as carefully and smoothly as possible. Tell it you’re sorry, and see how that erases the wrinkles, the scars from the mistreatment. Doesn’t help, does it? And our children are so much more fragile — and valuable — than paper.

The Michigan bill obviously is okay with many Americans. But I’m telling you as a teacher, as a mother, as the friend and relative of gay friends and family, it’s not okay with me. And it shouldn’t be okay with you, either. A religion that says it’s okay to hurt children is not a religion, but a license. And that’s not okay either.

 

serving art ~

Alice Walker, in her wonderful essay In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, reminds us that for many women the only creativity they could manage was useful. A garden — like my grandmother’s, like my great-aunt’s — of fragrant sweet pea and Peace roses and okra and potatoes and green beans. Mostly things you could eat. Or a ‘useful’ quilt — like my mother’s, like my grandmother’s — carefully sewn from colour-matched bits of dresses, shirts, blouses and rags. Nothing going to waste, ever. And maybe — but only if you had time, rare as money — a window full of African violets, a border sprawling Missouri primrose onto the walk beside.

This was the art of women for centuries, at least the women I come from. We were never ‘someones'; we were always worker bees, not queens. Perhaps ladies of leisure embroidered, penned a courtly sonnet, painted w/ a sumie brush on rice paper. We were not those women. We had to make bargains fro the crumbs of time that allowed us to create oases of beauty in our ordinary lives.

I wrote a poem about the forces that conspire to keep us — women, and sometimes men — from creating art. In effect, we sell our souls to the devils who need us. Those incredibly seductive infant devils, who reach up their tiny dimpled arms to us. The blue-eyed devils who beckon when we’re in our 20s. The devils of clean and care for and smile and nice. The demons that cultures around the world — and throughout time — have turned loose on women who presume to create anything other than children.

art by Daniel Johnson

So when the insistent inner voice that is the nascent poem whispers, and I succumb, I sometimes — even now, years later — feel guilty. Feel for all the women before me, the women in my line who had no choices. Although honestly? They’d probably be dead by now — victims of childbirth, childbed fever, violence of one sort or another.

Still, my gut insists, art does not feed us. It does not clothe or house the child, nor set the table w/ meat and potatoes. None of these does my putting pen to journal page, or fingers to keyboard, accomplish.

What it does do is open a kind of skylight — a round hole that lets light in to the dark places inside me. Those corners of an ostensibly curvilinear beginner’s heart. It swirls like fresh autumn air through cobwebs, fills me with light as ripe as pears, and it really does feed some almost-always hungry part of me.

That’s a lot. And today? It’s enough.

Previous Posts

day 24 of Thanksgiving month: getting ready (or not...)
I'm not at the 'in the pie pan' stage yet, but I did make the dough today. My family is BIG on pie, and especially at Thanksgiving. (Countdown: 3-2-1...) I think my beloved could eat an entire pie b

posted 3:47:13pm Nov. 24, 2014 | read full post »

day 23 of Thanksgiving month: soundtracks
The other day I wrote about how much I love music, how it's one of my everyday gratitudes. Which set me to thinking: what would my life's soundtrack be? What would I like to exit to? You have to realise: I pick

posted 6:07:08pm Nov. 23, 2014 | read full post »

day 22 of Thanksgiving month: the kindness of strangers
Today's gratitude is slightly abashed. I'm grateful for kindness -- even my own, actually. And abashed that it's noticed so...noticeably...? Because if just joking w/ the Starbuck's barista, and teasing her about

posted 10:42:50pm Nov. 22, 2014 | read full post »

day 21 of Thanksgiving month
Today a very simple gratitude, but profound. Music. That ineffable language writers have tried to capture for centuries. Working to replicate its nuance, the way it creates dancing in the bones, melancholy in the he

posted 9:01:39pm Nov. 21, 2014 | read full post »

day #20 of Thanksgiving month
 It's an older picture, but still appropriate for today's post. Because here's my gratitude today: my grandson recognizes me! Before you think I've totally lost my marbles, let me explain. My grandson is only 18 months old next week. I haven't seen him f2f for the past 4 months. And despite grea

posted 7:04:57pm Nov. 20, 2014 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.