Tuesday, July 26, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In 'Night Hawks' August Wilson mentions how black people didn't go see his plays. Do you feel sometimes that because of your style of writing your black reading audience might not be as large as you would like? I once coined the expression "literary pork" to describe the type of books being consumed by black readers. Do you have any concern about this matter?
I believe that Ethelbert and I both feel that Americans do not read enough. That includes black Americans. And when Americans do read, the works they select are seldom (if ever) intellectually challenging. "Literary pork" has always been---and most likely will always be---more popular than literary works that liberate our perception and challenge our presuppositions. One of my editors at the New York Times Book Review once put it to me this way: When motion pictures came along, literary culture had real competition, and by the time televisions were in most American homes, anything we might want to call literary culture was all but finished. We simply do not have a literary culture anymore---what we have instead is a widely shared pop culture provided by movies and television.
Don't forget, 1 out of 5 Americans is functionally illiterate (that's an old estimate from the '90s so it's probably worse than that now); that is, they cannot read a newspaper op-ed with comprehension (which is true of far too many college students)or the directions on their bottle of prescription medicine. According to a report in May of this year, the National Institute of Literacy discovered that "roughly 47 percent of adults in Detroit, Michigan---200,000 total" were functionally illiterate, "meaning they have trouble with reading, speaking, writing and computational skills." Even worse, the Detroit Regional Workforce found that "half of that illiterate population has obtained a high school degree."
During one of my family's reunions in South Carolina, a young woman who married a relative of mine told me she "didn't like to read," but was making herself do so for the sake of her young son. In other words, to set a good example for him. And I remember, painfully, signing one of my books for a young black man after I gave a reading somewhere, and him saying to me, "I want to be a writer but, you know, I don't like to read." When I did an event in Detroit a few years ago, the young, black woman who introduced me said one of her friends told her she was just "giving up" on trying to read Charles Johnson because she had to look up in the dictionary too many words she didn't know. And who can forget Alice Walker's memorable reply to an interviewer who asked her what her relatives thought of her books. She said, "What makes you think they read?" I could give you a thousand examples of this kind of tragic intellectual laziness among American readers, black, white and otherwise.
Like any writer, I've thought about this sad state of affairs since 1970 when I wrote my first novel. But remember my background is in philosophy, a field where the canonical texts (to say nothing of second-and-third tier works) are "invisible" to the vast majority of general readers. Since my undergraduate days, I've never read pop books or "literary pork" for pleasure. (And I just don't have the time or interest for watching 99% of what is on television.) Naturally, then, I've never had any interest in writing fluff---what writer Fred Pfeil once called "industrial fiction." The thought of "dumbing down" what I write is something I'm simply congenitally unable to do, because I write, first and foremost, in order to discover and clarify things for myself. (And that's why I write a lot; there are countless subjects I want to explore in this vast, mysterious universe we inhabit.) If I couldn't do that, then I wouldn't write. From the beginning, rather than desiring a lot of readers, I instead just wanted to have smart ones (the kind of readers who appreciate philosophical explorations and literary invention), regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or background. I.e., people who have a background in what Matthew Arnold referred to as "the best that has been known and said in the world." Those are my ideal readers, and have been since I first put pen to paper. But I've never been critical of writers who write for sales. They have to pay their bills and put their kids through college, too. If they can do that with "pork," then I say more power to them, but the likelihood of my reading that dreck is very, very low.
Ethelbert's Complaint (apologies to Phillip Roth), as I will call it, is a lament heard throughout the community of American poets and writers of literary fiction. And it has always been with us---this feeling that we, as literary writers, are culturally going against the grain. Melville and his associates said the same thing about "literary pork" in their day. So I don't expect the popularity of works aimed at the lowest common denominator to change in our lifetime. And I'm profoundly thankful for the literate, intelligent readers I do have.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 7:55 AM
Monday, July 25, 2011
As a student wrote: If one is trying to do something really well, one becomes, first of all, interested in it, and later absorbed in it, which means that one forgets oneself in concentration on what one is doing. But when one forgets oneself, one ceases to exist, since oneself is the only thing which causes oneself to exist. Christmas Humphreys, Concentration and Meditation
E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "How difficult was it for you to begin the practice of meditation? Is this something one can learn on their own or does it require a teacher and community? Can one be a Buddhist without practicing meditation? Is meditation a key to unlocking a door? If so, what's on the other side of the door?"
I first sat in meditation, a version of vipassana (also called "insight meditation"), which the Buddha taught in the Mahasatipatthana Sutra, when I was 14-years-old. It wasn't difficult at all. Perhaps this was so because as a teenager I was so obsessed with art and drawing, which involves concentration (dharana), the first stage in formal meditation (dhyana).
That first formal sitting was the most peaceful and renewing 30 minutes I'd every known, an experience that radically slowed down my sense of time and cleared away the background noise always at the edge of my consciousness. My mind, from surface to seabed, was suddenly quieted. I was seeing without judgment. Without judgment, there were no distinctions. Without distinctions, there was no desire. Without desire, there was only clarity and compassion. After meditation, I was suddenly no longer squandering my energy and consciousness by worrying about things in the past that could not be recovered or changed, nor was I pre-living in a future that would never come. Rather, all my attention rested peacefully in the present moment, a total immersion in the here and now very similar to the state of self-forgetting artists know well from focused moments of creation.
To my astonishment, I felt capable of infinite patience with and empathy for my parents, teachers and friends. Within me, I detected not the slightest trace of fear or anger or anxiety about anything. Nor was I conscious of myself, only of what was in my field of awareness, and that, of course, was indeed an unusual event in the life of a 14-year-old American boy in 1962.
As Eknath Easwaran said often, most of us usually invest no more than thirty percent of ourselves in the here and now. Where is the rest? Well, around thirty percent is wasted by dwelling on the past, on our habit of replaying experiences long gone, which we cannot change, and thinking, "I woulda coulda shoulda." Another thirty percent is frittered away by dwelling on a future that always recedes like the horizon. Remember how Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution determined that slaves would count as three-fifths of a person? Ironically, at any moment in Samsara (another form of slavery) we tend to live with only one-third of our lives in the present moment, and at a fraction of our full capabilities. Try, if you can, to focus on your breath and nothing else for five minutes. I doubt you can do this. After a few seconds the labile mind will wander from following the breath to memories, projections for future plans, thoughts, reveries and the entire "mental panorama" that leaves only thirty percent of our lives in the present moment.
Put simply, we seldom live 100 percent in the present. Vivekananda describes this state of mind beautifully with his metaphor of the drunken monkey:
"There was a monkey, restless by its own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough, someone made him drink freely of wine, so that the monkey became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion, he jumps about for a whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey, incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy of the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind."
But the operations of the mind, through the practice of meditation, can be---and should be---mastered. For this reason, I have long believed that meditation practice should be taught from K-12, and especially when young people reach that tempestuous stage known as puberty. As educators, we try to fill their heads with intellectual content, but we never give them the means for controlling the instrument---the mind---that is taking in that content. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Cambridge took 155 boys from two schools in the UK, and put them on a crash course in mindfulness training. After the trial period, the 14- and 15-year-old boys were “found to have increased well-being, defined as the combination of feeling good (including positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, interest and affection) and functioning well.” The researcher behind this project, Professor Felicia Huppert, said, “We believe that the effects of mindfulness training can enhance well-being in a number of ways. ..calming the mind and observing experiences with curiosity and acceptance not only reduces stress but helps with attention control and emotion regulation---skills which are valuable both inside and outside the classroom.”
And what is on the other side of the "door" of meditation?
The answer is peace, skillfulness, and compassion. Meditation, specifically vipassana, has also proven itself to be affective at the William G. Donaldson Correction Facility, an overcrowded prison in Alabama. There, one third of the 1500 inmates convicted of murder, sex offenses and robbery are on Death Row, or serving sentences of life without parole. The inmates at this facility were the subject of a 2007 documentary called The Dhamma Brothers, and what they have done has become a model for other prisons. In 2002, 40 inmates met four times a year in the prison gym for an intense 10-day course in mindfulness training. Dr. Ronald Cavanaugh, the prison’s treatment director, reported that after this experience, “the inmates are less angry, better able to conduct themselves, they’re more mindful of themselves and others, and overall there has been a 20% reduction of disciplinary action for those who have completed the course.”
As I said in my July 15th post, where I described my meeting with a Buddhist abbot in Thailand, not all Buddhists meditate. There are, of course, many techniques and approaches to meditation, from chanting like Soka Gakkai practitioners to meditation "with seed" (spiritual content intended to change or improve aspects of ourselves, such as metta or "lovingkindness" meditations for opening up our hearts to others) and "without seed" (I see most Zen meditation to be in this category). As the abbot in Thailand said, it is a bridge, a tool, and not something we should cling to when it has served its purpose. But, personally, for the last three decades I've never left my house to do a speaking engagement or an important public event in the social world (or even a radio interview at my house) until after I've sat in formal meditation. I do this because I feel I owe it to myself and others to be fully present when I am with them, which means getting my "self" out of the way and giving them 100 percent of my best thought, best feeling, and best awareness of the unique, unrepeatable moment we are sharing in our journey through life.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 1:58 AM
Friday, July 22, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "You recently wrote the introduction to THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF GORDON PARKS, a book published by The Library of Congress. How were you selected for this project? What was your opinion of Parks before you wrote your short essay? Did it change as you learned more about his career? Do you feel his work as a photographer overshadows his other contributions to African American culture? One notices on the cover of THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF GORDON PARKS, a picture of a black woman in Harlem looking out a window with her dog. Did you select this photo for the book because of your love for dogs?
Success is filled with the agony of how and why---in the flesh, nerves and conscience. It takes you down a lonely road and you feel at times, that you are traveling it alone. You can only keep walking. Gordon Parks, Voices in the Mirror.
All my life, I've admired and been inspired by Gordon Parks. As is the case with James Weldon Johnson, when we read about Parks’s life, it feels as if we are looking at the robust biography of four men, or perhaps five. Both men gave new meaning to the term "Renaissance Man." Although he never finished high school and had a rough-and-tumble youth, during his relentlessly prolific ninety-four year passage among us, Gordon Parks received forty honorary doctorates and awards, among them the National Medal of Arts, Spingarn Medal, the NAACP Image Award, and the PGA Oscar Micheaux Award.
He was a writer, musician, poet, composer, photojournalist, and a motion picture director. As a black American in the era of racial segregation, he was distinguished by a number of significant “firsts”: the first black fashion photographer for Vogue, the first black, staff photographer for Life magazine, and the first black director in Hollywood, one who opened the door for younger directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton. His films The Learning Tree, based on his autobiographical novel, and Shaft, are preserved in the United States National Film Registry. Furthermore, he served as the first editorial director for Essence magazine, and made respected contributions to the fields of ballet and opera, as well as technical books on photography. Today, schools across the nation are named after him, and the Library of Congress preserves his papers and artistic collection. In a word, Gordon Parks realized the dream of every artist: namely, to see his work and its influence become inescapable in the culture.
The key for unlocking the logic, vision, and specific challenges of this remarkable life that documented American history even as he participated in its making can be found in Parks’s inspiring autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times Book Review on November 4, 1990. There, we encounter not only a person of color’s dramatic journey across the twentieth century landscape of this country, from youthful dreams to artistic triumph, but also a digest of black American themes for survival, and an algorithm for achieving professional excellence in a hostile world.
When W. Ralph Eubanks, Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress, asked me to write the introduction for The Photographs of Gordon Parks for their Fields of Vision series that honors great photographers, I decided the first thing I should do is re-read Voices in the Mirror. Once again, I was powerfully impressed by all that he had to overcome as a young man before he bought his first camera for $7.50 in a Seattle pawnshop. He was washed by all waters. Living on his own by age 15, Parks worked as a bus boy and a waiter on trains; he played blues as a self-taught musician in bawdy houses, cleaned the filthiest flophouses in Chicago, “washed a million dishes every weekend,” traveled as a singer for white orchestra leader Larry Funk, played basketball as a semi-professional, and was in the Civil Conservation Corps in 1933. During those years, he says he felt like he was “serving out a sentence in hell.”
But his parents in Fort Scott, Kansas (he calls them his “heroes”) had given Parks such a strong moral foundation (his mother urged him to reach for “a nobler kind of success” than fame and fortune) that he was always “on a search for pride.” Furthermore, he believed that “nothing is more noble than a good try.” He learned from every experience that came his way (and there were so many!), read the great works of literature voraciously, and whenever possible studied the works of the best artists and photographers. A Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for his photos of impoverished areas of Chicago earned him a place on the staff of the Farm Security Administration, and from that moment forward his life consisted of one bold and memorable achievement after another across several artistic disciplines.
This new, gorgeous book from the Library of Congress presents the work Gordon Parks did during his time with the FSA. I love the cover photo of the black woman and a dog looking out a window, but I simply wrote the book's introduction and had no say-so over the selection of photographs.
If E-Channel readers want to treat themselves, or give to a friend a book of stunning images that capture the American experience in the 1930s and '40s, I highly recommend The Photographs of Gordon Parks.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:19 AM
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks a series of linked questions: "There have been a number of books published that collect "Buddhist" stories. How original can these stories be? For example, your story "Prince of the Ascetics" is a retelling of the Buddha's life. Do these types of stories simply offer pleasure to the reader? Are they didactic and convey the principles a Buddhist should follow? How risky is it to begin a story with - 'Once upon a time...' and not be seen as just writing for children?"
First, before I settle down to business, let me recommend to readers a lovely, recent book that collects contemporary Buddhist stories. The title is Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction, edited by Kate Wheeler (Wisdom Publications, 2004). This work includes my foreword, which is a reflection on Buddhism and the aesthetic experience.
As for the story under discussion today, "Prince of the Ascetics," it was, like so many of my stories for the last 13 years, originally written for the yearly Bedtime Stories fund-raiser for Humanities Washington. Our theme that year was "night watch," so the story's title at that time was Night Watch, 500 BCE, because when he achieved awakening the Buddha sat through three watches of the night. It was first published in StoryQuarterly. Since then it has been reprinted in 18 Lies and 3 Truths, the StoryQuarterly Annual in 2007; in the popular Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun in 2008; in The Best Buddhist Writing, 2008, edited by Melvin McLeod; The Best Spiritual Writing 2010, edited by Philip Zaleski; and in Philosophy: An Innovative Introduction: Fictive Narrative, Primary Texts, and Responsive Writing co-authored by Michael Boylan and myself. Naturally, I hope all my stories bring a reader some degree of pleasure, and that none are experienced as didactic.
It's true that for the last 2,600 years there have been countless stories told about Shakyamuni Buddha. And there is, of course, an important reason for that. In all of human history, this is one of the greatest stories every told. It has proven itself worthy of being retold over and over for two millennia. Like an old, old coin that has traversed continents and many cultures, picking up something from each one, and being passed down through centuries, it bears the sweat and palm oil of billions who've handled it. As a narrative, it must be regarded as a story that contains the collective experience of mankind. It is universal. It is timeless. It is, one might say, an essential part of our human inheritance. Of our very humanness.
But something I noticed is that in all the accounts of Prince Gautama Siddhartha's journey from a life of privilege and sensual pleasure in his father Shuddodana's palace to his night of awakening, very little time was spent describing or imagining the six, difficult years he spent between those two periods as an ascetic practicing life-threatening austerities in the traditional Hindu manner with five followers. Across southeast Asia, there are statues of him during this period that depict the future Buddha as being emaciated, gaunt, and skeletal. In some he looks like a corpse that just crawled out of its grave. My friend John Whalen-Bridge at the National University of Singapore, a Buddhist and a scholar of Buddhism, and I see this section of the story differently. I think that for JWB, this period of Shakyamuni's journey represents failure and for that reason humanizes him, i.e., that it brings him and his journey closer to us mere mortals because we all can relate to the experience of falling short of our goals and being fallible. My interpretation of those years is different, as readers of this tale will see. But I'm open to accepting JWB's interpretation, too, and I think it's good for us to argue, debate, and disagree about the meaning of those years.
And, yes, this is a tale that begins with "Once upon a time," because I always prefer to write in the yarn-and-tale-telling tradition. That phrase, Once upon a time, far from being words that limit a story to children, performs something like the
phenomenological epoche. It invites us to "bracket" the Natural Attitude, as Husserl called it, and set momentarily aside our assumptions, prejudices, presuppositions, and what we think we know so that we can experience the world anew, and often with a sense of enchantment. If you like, think of Once upon a time as a phrase that speaks to the child in all of us, one who is listening to the tale as it is told by a beloved parent or grandparent, a child who has not yet fallen into cynicism, pessimism, suspicion, bitterness, negativism, and Schadenfreude.
Yet, ironically, the narrator of this story, one of the Buddha's followers named Mahanama, is a miserable man who suffers from exactly those all-too-familiar attitudes. He is jealous of the privileges young Shakyamuni enjoyed and abandoned, and he wants him to fail in his quest for liberation and awakening. (I used artistic license in characterizing the Buddha's followers in this chapter of his life because so little of what I've read presents them in detail. We know their names but almost nothing about them as individuals.) This story is very much about class and caste. It is about a man who pushes himself to death's door for six hard years in order to find an alternative to egotism, selfishness, greed, illusion, dualism, lust and ignorance.
That is the period in the Buddha's story that I wanted to imaginatively inhabit---when he discovers the Middle Way---and with the hope that it would help readers experience the tale from a different (and rather modern) viewpoint, and possibly with new meanings that rise to the surface based on this specific, dramatic rendition.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 7:43 PM
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
E.Ethelbert Miller asks, "How does one create good political cartoons without being offensive? When is one man's joke another man's curse? Does laughter bring us together as a community or does it simply reflect the lasting pain of our scars? Are cartoons visual poems?"
I absolutely love the idea that cartoons are"visual poems." In the hands of our best comic artists, a beautifully rendered, elegant drawing is just that. Even so, it's likely someone will take offense when the imagination is distilled into powerful images. Let me give you an example.
All during my undergraduate years in college, I drew every kind of assignment for my college newspaper The Daily Egyptian, and for the local paper, The Southern Illinoisan, from 1966 to 1972. I remember drawing in 1967 when I was 19-years-old what I thought was a completely innocent, even bland cartoon about campus life for the Egyptian. It was just a panel cartoon, not a political one intended for the editorial page. Just a run-of-the-mill gag involving two couples doing something students typically do. But here's the trick: to keep myself from becoming bored with it, I let my imagination go where it would, and tried something I'd never done before. Then I dropped the drawing off at the newspaper's office, and thought no more about it.
But a day or so later, I received a phone call in my dormitory room from the secretary of the chairman for the Department of Journalism, a seasoned old newsman who started that department. She said he wanted to talk to me, but she wouldn't say why. I was baffled. (I hate it when people do that to me---say they want to talk about something in a mysterious tone, but won't tell me why until later. It's a maddeningly rude and annoying thing to do to someone, and these days I refuse to meet with anyone until they tell me what they want to talk about.) He was a fan of my work---I knew that---and years later he would give me an award in 1977, saying he'd only known two geniuses in his life, and both were cartoonists. So what the hell, I wondered, was wrong?
When I entered his office, he asked me to take a seat. He looked frustrated and uncomfortable, as if he was about to perform a very distasteful chore. He lifted my cartoon from his desk and said, sadly, "We can't run this. Not in this part of Illinois."
What was the problem? Well, it was simply this: I had drawn two integrated couples in that cartoon. A white boy dating a black girl, and a black boy dating a white girl. There were people in southern Illinois, which sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and where outside town there still stood an old barn from which slaves had once been sold, who would be enraged by that drawing in 1967. This experience was my introduction to media censorship. My initial reaction as an artist, my first gut response, was two-fold: I felt anger and the desire to push the envelope even farther, and if someone got offended, then so be it. Over the decades I would---both as a professional cartoonist and a writer---experience other situations like the one I just described. So where am I going with this?
It all comes down, I think, to whose ox is being gored. Today, if a young cartoonist did a variation on the one I drew in 1967 and showed a gay or lesbian couple, some readers would be outraged. I say, let them be outraged. If someone is so thin-skinned and insecure that a simple drawing---a visual poem---can send them into a tailspin, then perhaps they need that cold splash of water in the face when they're sipping their morning coffee and looking at their newspaper.
Our nation's cartoonists, whose ancestry reaches back to the first one (Ben Franklin with his "Join, or Die" drawing in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1745) and Thomas Nast, are protected by the First Amendment, and are always more than happy to perform that public service. At this very moment, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard is under constant police protection because he published a drawing of the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban. Westergaard knew what he was doing. His drawing is elegant and perfectly captures the point he wishes to make about how terrorists use religion. At the moment he probably feels a little bit like Socrates when the Athenians handed him the hemlock to drink. Whether one is a philosopher or a political cartoonist, one understands that the ire of some readers or listeners simply comes with the territory. Our job is to shake people up. Especially smug ones.
In 1871, the very corrupt William "Boss" Tweed is accredited with saying, "Stop them damn pictures!" when he saw one of Thomas Nast's' anti-Trust cartoons. "I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituency can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures."
That, I believe, says all one needs to say on this subject.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 12:17 PM
Sunday, July 17, 2011
E. Ethelbert Millers asks, "How has your life been changed by the deaths of family members and friends over the years? How does a Buddhist deal with actual loss and not simply the philosophical understanding of it?"
The first and most important thing to say is that the Buddhist experience is simply the human experience. So there is nothing "special" that differentiates it from everyday living. It is ordinary life, right here, right now, lived mindfully. (And why, pray, isn't the "philosophical understanding" of something adequate for "dealing" with it? Do I detect a bit of anti-intellectual bias here?)
Let me consider the question in terms of my personal experience.
Travel back to late summer, 1981. (Shift to present tense.) I'm sitting in a conference room at WGBH/Boston with actor Glynn Turman and my two friends, film-makers Fred Barzyk and Olivia Tappan with whom I worked on the 1978 docu-drama "Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree" (That was Olivia's title for the movie, which I always disliked, but we voted on titles and she won) We're there to discuss a new script I agreed to write for Glynn and his (at the time) wife Aretha Franklin, a version of the "Frankie and Johnny Story."I'm on my first sabbatical from the University of Washington. This is the summer when I lived for half a year alone in a small studio unit at John Muir Apartments in Daley City, and took BART every day to KQED, where I worked as one of two writer/producers for the second season of the black family drama, "Up and Coming." The other writer/producer was my buddy Art Washington. Back in Seattle, my wife Joan is pregnant with our daughter, and when I'm not doing teleplays I'm training in the evening at the Choy Li Fut school of grandmaster Doc Fai Wong and immersing myself in the theory and practice of meditation. This will be a year full of transitions: birth, death, several screen-writing gigs, and day and night spiritual practice.
We've just begun discussing the "Frankie and Johnny" project when the phone rings. Fred Barzyk picks it up. He looks at me, a bit surprised, and says, "It's for you." The room becomes silent. Everyone's eyes focus on me. I take the phone and discover it's my best friend on the other end. My wife. I hear her say, Your mother died this morning. I close my eyes. I nod. This news is not entirely unexpected. My mother had gone into the hospital for a surgery (which she would not survive). I'd been by her bed side in Evanston Hospital just a few weeks earlier. Slowly and softly, I thank my wife for telling me. I say, "I'm leaving right now." I hand the phone back to Fred, feeling a bit dazed, even disembodied. Two or three seconds pass before I can speak, and everyone is wondering what is going on. I say, "My mother... died...this morning." As soon as the last syllable leaves my lips, Glynn Turman is flying across the conference room---so fast it's like he teleported himself---throwing his arms around me in a tight hug. He knows what I'm feeling.
(Shift now to past tense.) Barzyk and Tappan wasted no time in arranging my flight from Logan airport to O'Hare. I was back in Evanston that evening, the flight feeling as if it had taken place in a dream. Using a telephone in the kitchen that night, my father fielded an unbroken stream of calls, explaining to my mother's friends and our relatives in the Midwest and South all the details of her death. Over and over he did that. Then, during the ninth or tenth call, as he recounted his experience of her last hours for the umpteenth time, his voice shattered. He turned his head away and held the phone toward me. "Chuck," he said, "you finish this." My father hurried from the kitchen. It was the first time I had ever seen this strong man in tears. I took a deep breath and completed the phone call for him. My mother's death would only deepen our bond as father and son.
Black Americans raised in the South in the 1920s, like my father, aunts and uncles, know how to deal with death. They are always prepared to send off the deceased with dignity. The bereaved don't have to do much because one's kinfolk know every detail required for the ritual of transitions such as this one. And don't let me forget to mention all that food people bring by the house after the funeral, that way we have of affirming life for those still among the living. My father's house was packed with family and friends (and food), all sharing memories of my mother, and doing for both of us whatever they could do. Two women told me how I didn't have to worry about my Dad, because they would "take care" of him. I knew exactly what they meant. During all his years of marriage, my father was never unfaithful. Not once. Even though a few women (according to my Mom) expressed their willingness. But now, with Mom gone, he was in their eyes...available.
Standing at the pulpit during my mother's funeral, I read a tribute for her, one I knew all my adult life I would some day have to deliver (one of those dreaded duties a colleague of mine once said was the part of being a grown-up that's not much fun), detailing with every skill I'd learned as a literary writer and could muster at that moment how it was her artistic and intellectual interests that became my own when I was a child---and were responsible for my being a writer and someone congenitally curious about all aspects of the world, East and West, that enveloped us. How she was a bibliophile with the soul of an actress, a woman who was wonderfully ironic, occasionally cynical, and capable of devastating scorn for whatever she saw as hypocritical or phony. (Those literary skills, I daresay, were honed not just to serve book publishers and readers I would never meet, but more importantly for this long-anticipated moment when my mother deserved a praise song that would capture the essence of her days on this earth.) When I sat down again next to my father, always a man of few words, he said, "Chuck, that was beautiful." I patted his hand. I promised him that, of course, when his time came, I would be there to do the same for him. He could count on that.
What I'm saying, I guess, is that we deal with "loss"---especially the loss of a parent or loved one---by meticulously and mindfully doing the filial duties required to honor them and celebrate their lives one last time. Love lives in every little detail we bring to the time-honored rituals used to send them on their way. (All my life, I tried to be a good Confucian son so I knew what I had to do.) There is simply no time to dwell on oneself. Or to give in to grief. That comes later.
And so it did, two weeks after my mother was buried and I went back to work on "Up and Coming." (My buddy Art covered for me---had my back, as we say---during my time away from KQED; I never returned to the "Frankie and Johnny" project.) One night I went to the supermarket a couple of miles from John Muir Apartments. I found myself walking back to my lonely studio unit filled with works of philosophy, grocery bags in my arms, on a long stretch of road where all of a sudden there were no cars. Or people. Or streetlights. For a few minutes I was alone in darkness for as far ahead and behind as I could see, the clack of my boot heels on concrete the only sound in my ears. Almost involuntarily I stopped walking and stood motionless. My wife and Evanston kinfolk were far, far away. The enormity of the night sky overwhelmed me, its indifference to the hopes, cares, and suffering of those living on our little speck of light in the Milky Way galaxy. Right then, right there on that shadow-swept California street, my mother's voice, a flicker flash vision of her, filled my mind---as did a flood of thirty-three years of remembered experiences we shared---and for the first time in my life I felt (or believed I felt) what it was like to be orphaned. (August Wilson nodded with recognition when I described it that way to him one evening.) To know in my bones there would never be another person in this world who would give me a mother's unconditional, selfless love. No one who would ever care for me in quite the way this black woman did. The world, I felt, was poorer for her passing. And I was poorer, too. Alone in the darkness, I fully surrendered to that wrenching feeling of abandonment, let it be in all its prismatic shades and hues and emotionally variegated colors---I neither rejected nor ran from it---and cried until I felt cleansed. Emptied. It was a moment of pain that deserved to be experienced in all its singular, exquisite fullness. And then, miraculously, the pain transformed into thanksgiving. Into a profound gratitude for all she had given to me. Then, taking a deep breath, picking up my bags of groceries, I "let go" of that experience; and let her go, too, so that she might continue on her journey.
And I walked on.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 11:01 AM
Friday, July 15, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks several questions: "Did you have long conversations with anyone prior to becoming a Buddhist? When should a person take his/her vows? How important is it to belong to a community? In your life have you ever experienced a moment of 'increased' awareness or enlightenment? What is the major distraction that often finds people 'straying' from the path?"
I will need two posts to address all these questions.
In this post, let me start by saying that I've been in conversations with Buddhists all over America since 1967, first with my teachers in the Asian martial arts, then with my professors, white, Chinese and Japanese, who taught the undergraduate and graduate courses I took on eastern philosophy (Hinduism and Taoism), and with others in the American Buddhist community such as Robert Thurman, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama, who I have lectured for twice at Columbia University and the Tibet House in NYC; mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas, with whom I took the ceremony for embracing the Precepts (I will discuss these in the next post); the publishers and editors for publications I write for like Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Shambhala Sun, and Buddhadharma; and many others during the course of my sixty years of living.
Probably one of the most moving, transformative encounters I had was in December, 1997 with a young abbot in the town of Phrae, who was building a meditation center in northern Thailand. I was there on a Microsoft-sponsored research trip to write an article on "The Asian Sense of Beauty" for their now-defunct on-line travel magazine Mungo Park. (My editor asked me to see if the rumor was true that Thai women are the most beautiful in the world; a comparable rumor among world-travelers is that Turks are supposed to be the most handsome men.) Let me talk first about my experience of that country---a poor, developing nation in need of jobs and education for its people, a place that is not free of political corruption and has feudal conditions yet is spiritually rich like India---before I discuss the abbot.
I knew as soon as my plane landed in Thailand, a country the size of Texas, that I was spiritually "home." It was like a trip to the Holy Land, one I didn't know I was making. But as I stepped off the plane, I felt a peace and calm descend upon me. I felt that so powerfully that during my first three days there I only slept two hours a day, because everything I saw manifested all the things I'd been studying about Theravada Buddhism since the 1960s. At Bangkok airport, I asked a young Thai taxi driver pushing a cart of luggage for directions, and he said to me, "You American? Welcome, soul brother," and he slapped my palm.
Thais date their history from the Buddha's birth---B.E., the "Buddha Era." In America we have posters of rock stars everywhere; in Chiang Mai ("New City") all the posters I saw were of revered Buddhist monks. There, we find as many statues of revered monks as we do the Buddha. At Doi Sutherp mountain temple, a Thai artist as he was working looked at me and my Scottish guide (I also had a young Thai guide named Uthai who spent 11 years in a monastery and was a monk for 9 days), and said, "You black, he white---you friends," and he seemed enormously pleased by that.
For two weeks I traveled to elephant training camps (100 years ago, there were 500 majestic elephants---which date back to end of the dinosaur age---for every person in Thailand, but in 1997 there were about 1300; there were once many species of elephants, now there are two, Indian and African) and to out-of-the-way locations most visitors never see (an illegal, wild animal market, for example, where I could not take pictures; I will not describe the things for sale there); to a Hmong New Year's house blessings conducted by a shaman, and the home of a Hmong opium-eater, who demonstrated for me how he took his drug. I interviewed the Thai people about their sense of beauty, performed many rituals and made many donations. In the journal I kept, I wrote, "Seeing Thailand, I realize what I've missed in America for 49 years, and why I was so powerfully drawn to Buddhism in my teens. This is a 'way of life' where the spirit and a worldly existence have not been separated---they are riabroi."
That Thai term has no English equivalent. Riabroi means "Everything together at once, complete, sensible, beautiful, perfect and natural." When the plane I took from an area near the Laos border (I spent a few days not only with Hmong hill tribesmen but also the Mabri "Yellow Leaf" forest dwellers who work for them) returned to Chiang Mai, the flight attendant said, "We have landed and everything is riabroi." A woman I interviewed said rather than having a handsome man, she'd much prefer being with one who was riabroi.
In my journal I also wrote: "It is as if the momentary 'home' I experience inwardly during meditation is all around me, externalized, outside and public everywhere I turn or gaze: the inner is outer, the Buddhist spirit manifested in the material world---in custom, ritual, objects for sale, paintings in my Empress Hotel room, in women (gasp!), in the greetings of hotel workers....I haven't met anyone here who is desperately trying to be funny or clever...There is something amazing about being in a culture, a country, where people aren't constantly criticizing and putting each other down, as we do in America. "Face' is lost if you disrespect another..'Respect' seems to permeate this culture---for the royal family, the spirits of the dead (animism) as seen in their spirit-houses, for foreigners, visitors, for monks. So far I have seen nothing disrespected. A young singer/showgirl I interviewed in a garden restaurant was asked by my Scottish guide if she'd ever seen a black person before. She said, yes, and she felt the ones she'd met had 'a good heart.'
"This culture is old, steeped in the compassionate spirit of the Dharma (and commingled with the animism that preceded Buddhism). Thais are always smiling, making themselves smile as a way to minimize conflict...It is as if the best of religion's principles (Buddhism) texture this society from top to bottom. The traditional crafts are here---from weaving to elephant training---and the modern is here, from computers to Latin music in the garden restaurant. But Thais value most a 'character' based on the model provided by the Buddhist monks....Perhaps, just perhaps, this journey was placed before me now, on the eve of my fiftieth birthday, for a reason; that is, so that I might find the energy and the resolve for the last stretch of living a life fully committed to the spirit. Question: in early 1998, should I join a Buddhist temple in Seattle? I know beyond all doubt after this trip, that Buddhism has been, and will be central to my life. Isn't it time, at age 50, to go yet another step along the Way? If that decision is made, the next ten years can be truly something thrilling to look forward to. Years of practice and meaning, greater perfection of the Dharma, and preparation for the final acts of this incarnation."
(A few years later, I was enrolled as one of the first members of Daigo-ji Temple in Japan by my friend, the late Zen priest Martin Hughes, one of the only two white abbots in Osaka, Japan in the early '90s; he once trained in the kung-fu studio my friends and I operated in Seattle, but died during a trip to the Philippines where he went to do work helping street kids---he ate something and died from food poisoning---and his temple closed.)
I could go on and on about Thailand, but now I should talk about the abbot.
Our two-hour encounter was inspiring. I came prepared with twelve Dharma questions for him. When we were introduced his first remark was about how my hair was curly like that of the Buddha. (Women at the wild animal market also found my hair fascinating and asked me what I did to make it curly.) Normally, he spoke to visitors for only thirty minutes. But we hit it off immediately. He told me he would never be part of the religious hierarchy because it is drenched in politics. Instead of being involved with that, he was devoting himself to building a meditation center for the common people. We talked for two hours about a great many things: the nature of merit (karma), how Buddhism is about freedom even from Buddhist concepts, texts, and traditions. He showed me a 200-year-old palm-leaf manuscript, and one on paper that was 100-years old. These texts (he said) were just bridges that (like rituals) must one day be left behind. He emphasized the mind's development, the necessity of its freedom from illusion. His focus was on mindfulness at all times, i.e., knowing where one's mind is, on awareness during breathing exercises. And he valued meditation, which is something not true for everyone in Thailand. He studied me and predicted I would realize Buddha-nature.
For this abbot, truth was found in a free mind that is completely aware of the moment, of itself, and what it is doing, and of the body. He saw the many rituals he was called upon to perform as simply being "bridges" to Buddhism's deeper truths, merely "shadows" of the truth, but he dutifully met the laity where they lived, doing the rituals they asked for ---blessing a home, etc. He told me that some would understand the Dharma in 7 days, others would take 7 months, and still others wouldn't understand after 7 years, if at all. I performed one ritual with him; he gave me a meditation rosary, then he tied a string around my wrist and instructed me to wear it until it fell off, which I did---for several months and during the 6-week book tour I did the following year for Dreamer. He told me when his meditation center was completed, I could stay there anytime.
Lastly, the abbot expressed the view that Buddhism would be good for Americans. Why? Because America is a developed country, he said, one where people were free, and had the leisure time to study Buddhism and practice meditation. That was not true for the average person in Thailand. The American political system is admired world-wise, and especially in this country, where next door in Burma (Thai and Burmese cultures overlap) Aung San Suu Kyi was kept in house arrest for so long.
I was filled to overflowing on my flight back to America. (I returned with a begging bowl and monk's robe, which is still in its plastic wrapping, items I purchased at a place where monks shop, and I'd never dare put on that robe, but these items rest near one of my places for meditation and are reminders for me of the life I would probably lead if I was not a householder and writer/artist with worldly duties.) However, before my plane landed at Sea-Tac airport, the on-line magazine Mungo Park was canceled and its editors reassigned. In other words, Microsoft paid me for a glorious, life-altering, $5,000. research trip and an article that I no longer was expected to write (but I still have a notebook full of material I may some day use).
So to answer Ethelbert's question: yes, community---the Sangha---and communing with others is important, one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism in which we take refuge (along with the Buddha and the Dharma). But as the abbot of Phrae told me, one progresses alone, what one experiences can not be shared by another, and nothing can interfere with one's progress to liberation.
E. Ethelbert Miller asked, "What is the major distraction that often finds people 'straying from the path'?"
I can best answer this on the basis of my personal experience. In my last post, I mentioned the 10 Precepts, which are commonly found among many Buddhist traditions. They are taken by laity and monks alike, and I took them as a layperson or upasaka in the Soto Zen school with mendicant monk and peace activist Claude AnShin Thomas. The first ten Precepts I took are as follows:
1). Do not kill.
2). Do not steal.
3). Do not engage in improper sexual conduct.
4). Do not lie.
5). Do not indulge in intoxicating substances.
6). Do not speak of other’s errors and faults.
7). Do not elevate self and blame others.
8). Do not be withholding, but instead generous.
9). Do not give way to anger.
10). Do not defame the Buddha, the Dharma, or the Sangha.
(In Thailand, the last five Theravada Precepts my guide Uthai took when he lived in the monastery---where young boys go if they want to continue their education---and before he briefly became a monk, were: 6). Only two meals a day, and none taken after mid-day; 7). No wearing of make-up or jewelry; 8). No amusements, no movies but TV was okay; 9). No sleeping on a "high" bed; and 10). No touching of gold (or money). In general, monks take over 240 vows.)
I knew the Precepts long before I engaged in the formal ceremony, because all my adult life I've tried to live most of them. But the ceremony does make a difference in one's attitude---I experienced the same seriousness that I did forty-one years ago when I made my marriage vows. The ceremony made the Precepts feel as if they were truly a part of me.
Whenever I describe these Precepts to American friends in the academic and art worlds, many of them balk and say, “I can’t do that” when they hear #5 (“Do not indulge in intoxicating substances” ), #6 and #7 (“Do not speak of other’s errors and faults,” and “Do not elevate self and blame others”), and especially #9 (“Do not give way to anger”).
In their honesty, they admit how difficult it is to be non-judgmental in our society---a society that encourages our being trigger-happy with snap judgments; a society that so often portrays the angry person as a powerful person, and regards finding fault as a proper intellectual activity that demonstrates our critical acumen, shows our intellectual superiority and, by virtue of that, feeds our egos. In this culture, then, it is difficult to let go of pride (naama), and anger, which is a form of violence and one of the three defilements, along with greed and ignorance. In Buddhist Ethics, Saddhatissa points out that, “By allowing anger to arise I am like one who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement and by so doing either burn or soil myself.” Although simple and straightforward (and, of course, demanding), the Precepts embody the spirit of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the paramitas, and in them we can see the distillation of Buddhist metaphysics.
And for me the Precept I must work most often on is anger. An anger that ever so often---but far less often these days after over thirty years of meditation--- arises from my (dualistic) conditioning to see things as "right" or "wrong," and then to judge things on that basis. Fortunately, I'm able to see my anger the instantly it arises, to know that anger is present in my mind, that it is impermanent and not me, and to psychically take a step back and study it until its energy dissipates and it disappears. That process takes place in a matter of seconds. And then I can act on a situation without anger, selfish desire, or attachment to results.