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The conclusion of that day is likely obvious to all of you: I don’t know Jack. I was convinced that all my reactivity was related to the incompatibility of Westerners with the True-Pure-Real Burmese tradition of Buddhism. Starting an hour before dawn, I began, inviting all the evidence that would support my Theory of Everything Wrong with Western Buddhism. Instead, all the heartaches, all the sorrows began to come home. My inner theatre filled with scenes from childhood: the pagoda I lived next to in Rangoon, the walking meditation around Shwedagon Pagoda with my grandmother, feeding the turtles in the pond at Botataung Pagoda, and then the wrenching leave-taking from Home. For years I wrote to cousins and aunties and uncles in Burmese, desperate to keep up my written skills. As the country closed down, they stopped replying. I practice the letters now in my shodo art; they are symbols stripped of language but still evocative in their beauty.
Through the morning, the afternoon, the evening, I sat with pain of this loss. Penetrating through the craving, I felt the emptiness. And then as I felt a sense of helplessness to fill that space, Mara spoke. Just go home; Jack does. Emotionally, I fell off my cushion! Jack goes home… to my Home… (Note bene: The many travels of the IMS teachers to Burma have been instrumental in bringing the dhamma to the West and has likely protected the root teachings from being lost in the political mess that is Burma.)
Suddenly, I remembered a fight with my cousin who had come to live with us because his family was in upheaval. We were playing school and there was a blue pencil we both wanted. We struggled and he stabbed me in the arm breaking off the lead in my flesh. The pencil broke and he cried, “Why should you have it if I can’t have anything?” This was the heart of my suffering in my encounters with Theravada in the West.
The discoloration from that lead is embedded in my arm to this day. A piece of home. I felt flooded with joy: Jack has his Sayadaws; I have this little piece of lead in my arm I now wouldn’t trade for all the gold on the Shwedagon! It’s hard to believe that anger can be so transformative. At one level, I truly regret harboring such deep negativity towards incredibly generous teachers. Yet, that anger has fueled my persistence in my professional and personal life, protecting me from the feelings of isolation and despair. For so many years, that anger continued to be fueled by many perceived rejections and injustices. Like the bulbs and plants in my garden, it multiplied by splitting: You/me, us/them, mine/yours. And these concepts are defined by what I objectify in my environment through a false sense of ownership.
In the Q&A on Day 6 of the Vietnam retreat, Thay offered his guidance to a young woman who wanted to conceive a child but had been unsuccessful. We develop an attachment to one thing and it becomes the object of our attention. We come to believe it is the only way to feel fulfilled, feel happy, feel at home. I look around as his voice fills the meditation room. The roses on the altar evoke memories of the rose garden at the Botataung house. The incense brings me home to the pagodas. The sound of the bells in the water fountain is the tinkle of the bells in the spires. The ancestor’s altar is filled with pictures of my father, his mother (a devout Buddhist and minus cheroot), his father, my maternal grandmother (a devout Catholic), and Frank’s ancestors who struggled in the poverty of the Deep South. I am embedded in my life right here.
Next: transparency of water
The image – and the reality – of the embedded pencil lead is so powerful. All of us carry embedded wounds that fuel our rage. “Why should you have it if I can’t?” – the painful cry of loss, combined with the impulse of entitlement.
oh yes… entitlement… Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “The Equality Complex!”