Friday, April 19, 2013

Tearing up

What shall I tell you about the second day of "Enlightenment and Liberation" at Union Theological Seminary? I missed the first few hours, but 2-9pm offered plenty. Like yesterday, not all of it was as stimulating as some of it. But by the end of this day, I was really feeling something. It was more than what anyone said, though it came through what they were saying. This is the coming together of a community of people who, between them, have spent centuries (and that just in their current lives!) fighting for justice, praying, challenging their own religious traditions and dialoguing with others. Many have been at it for over half a century, and so by the end of today they had brought into the already charged space of the James Chapel (where, Cornel West reminded us last night, Abraham Joshua Heschel had delivered the famous talk "No religion is an island") some of the great figures of civil rights struggle and inspiration of half a century ago: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton and, repeatedly, Martin Luther King, Jr. (His letter from Birmingham jail was written fifty years ago Tuesday but took a week to see the light of day; UTS President Serene Jones made the anniversary of this transit the frame for our gathering.) Quite a company! A very special place, UTS.

I'll describe just one moment for you which really got to me - well, let me make it a triptych. The wings first, then the middle.

Yesterday we heard from Thai peace activist Ouyporn Khuankaew, who described a practice of
being with people as they cry, often after long conversations about lives of great suffering and loss. Not trying to fix them - you usually can't - and not running away from their pain, but being with them in it. I recalled my helpnessness at a student who started crying in my office just the day before (a high school friend had died of a drug overdose, probably on purpose), my helplessness at my helplessness, and how it came between me and him.

This evening, Ruben Habito, a "double belonger" Catholic Buddhist (he runs a Zen center in Texas called Maria Kannon) told a story he'd heard during the many years he lived in Japan. A Korean resident in Japan had lost his son to bullying, and been ready to follow him into death. Then in his darkest despair he felt a single tear, a teardrop in his heart which, as a Buddhist, he understood to come from the bodhisattva of compassion Kannon 観音 (Kanzeon 観世音菩薩, "who hears the cries of the world"). Kannon, like Mary, feels the pain of suffering beings not as theirs but as her own. It gave him strength to go on living.

And in the middle, during the discussion after powerful presentations on "The Sufferings of Racism," the founder of feminist studies in Buddhism Rita Gross recalled how in her early life nobody could hear what I was saying because I was so angry. Buddhist meditation helped with that. But that was also a period of intense fear as my identity of anger was breaking up. To experience the balm of Buddhism you have to be willing to experience that fear. (She speaks slowly and deliberately, so I think I got that down verbatim.) Suddenly a Brazilian liberation theologian (Ilone Gebara) walked up to the dais and back. One of the main speakers, Jan Willis, a Tibetan Buddhism-practicing black woman who had been among the children marching with King in Birmingham, was weeping. She later told us that wise old church women wouldn't let the Birmingham teenagers march if they were angry.

I'm not sure what Willis was responding to at that point, but my eyes responded, too, with tears.

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