Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Metta for the dead

As you may know, my life was changed by a Japanese Buddhist priest friend's quip, many years ago, that religion in Japan could perhaps best be described as "ethics for the dead" (死者に対する倫理). That's the grain of sand around which my oyster brain has been polishing the pearl of my "Exploring Religious Ethics" course; the "Wider Moral Communities" project grows out of it, too.

The phrase came to mind after "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today as I reflected on our discussion of a beautiful talk Alice Walker gave at the first African-American Buddhist Retreat in 1997, "Suffering too insignificant for the majority to see" (shared with the wider world here). Walker frames her talk with the account of the murder of George Slaughter, a young African American man in the Antebellum South, by a posse led by his own (white) father, incensed, it was reported, that his horse was too fine. After an eloquent account of Buddhist responses to oppression - she references the Dalits we read about Monday, and is sure young Gautama rejected caste distinctions - and of what Buddhist practice offers oppressed peoples, she returns to the people who participated in Slaughter's murder. She returns, however, in a mode of meditation, building on and building out the familiar formulas of metta meditation.

In metta meditation you start by sending loving-kindness (metta) to yourself. The wishes are versions of this:

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be free from danger.
May I live with ease.

The circle of metta expands by steps, first to a benefactor, then to a friend, then to a neutral person, then to a difficult person, and finally to all beings.
May he/she/they/we be happy.
May he/she/they/we be healthy.
May he/she/they/we be free from danger.
May he/she/they/we live with ease.

As you know I find this psychologically as well as ethically profound. But today (after doing the guided metta meditation with Sharon Salzberg from last year) we were discussing Walker, who writes:

Let us bring our attention to the life of our young brother, our murdered ancestor, George Slaughter. We know he was a beautiful young man, and that it was this beauty and his freedom expressing it that caused his father, himself unfree, to seek his death. We can see George sitting on his stunning saddle horse. We do not know if his half-sister, white, confused by her liking for her darker brother, gave it to him. We do not know if his mother, dark and irresistible, as so many black women are, gave it to him. We do not know if he bought it himself. All we know is that he is sitting there, happy. And the horse, too, is happy.

George Slaughter, an English name. We might think of Bob Marley, half-English, with his English name; perhaps George had a similar spirit. A kindred look and attitude.


 May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you 

The circle widens:

Let us bring our attention to George’s mother. She who came, weeping, and picked up the shattered pieces of her child, as black mothers have done for so long.
May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

Let us bring our attention to George’s father. He who trails the murder of his lovely boy throughout what remains of time.


May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

Let us bring our attention to those who rode with the father, whose silence and whose violence caused so much suffering that continues in the world today.

May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

And now let us bring our attention to George’s horse. With its big dark eyes. Who drank George’s blood in grief after the horror of his companion’s bitter death. We know by now that the other animals on the planet watch us and know us and sometimes love us. How they express that love is often mysterious.

May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

What Walker does here is an extraordinary thing, supporting her claim that the study and practice of Buddhism ... is good medicine for healing us so that we may engage the work of healing our ancestorsHealing our ancestors? It's perhaps an appropriation of Buddhism (Walker claims not to be a Buddhist, and draws explicitly from indigenous, Womanist and other traditions), but it's one that has happened in many places before, perhaps all of them. Are not the dead, our dead, the moral community par excellence? Expanding the circle of our metta to them is, for some, no stretch at all. (The ancestors were very present also at the first retreat for Buddhists of color held at Thich Nhat Hanh's Deer Park Monastery near Escondido, CA in 2004, "Colors of Compassion.")

Metta for the dead. Of course.

Perhaps, indeed, it is widening the circle to the dead which grounds a practice in space as well as time. One of my most thoughtful students (white, a bit of a bodhisattva) saw in Walker's reflection the way towards a true and truly American Buddhism:

as far as America is concerned, Buddhism begins not in 1844 in the European scholar’s office (where surely Buddhism cannot happen at all) but rather only after the European decides it is more profitable to leave his office, to bring dukkha to the New World by ships with sugar and slaves, and to let the slaves really live it.  

May I say: Amen?

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