Practice in Mexico

by Norman Fischer | December 02, 2005 at 7:31 PM

From Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 52 Dec 2-6, 2005 Mar de Jade

Dec 2, 2005. Mar de Jade. On the airplane I sat next to two kids, Carlos (9) and Sandy (7) who were flying to Mexico alone, for the first time, to spend a month with their grandmothers. Their parents, they told me in their accented English, were Mexicans who could not legally leave the U.S. with hope to return. "They have to run from the police," Carlos said. All dressed up from head to toe in brand new chic casual clothes, they were very cute, Carlos pudgy with a flat top haircut, Sandy, with very small English, had a lovely smile and wide dark eyes. Both, at different points in the flight, broke down crying and I tried to comfort them. They recovered. Sandy, at one point, began to pray, closing her eyes and putting her palms together, a pious look on her face. It seemed she was praying though Carlos said, "She doesn't know how to pray." Every twenty minutes or so one of them would ask me how much longer till we landed. There was a kid-oriented movie being shown but they seemed uninterested in it. It was about white pre teens living in Upper West Side Manhattan a life quite different from Carlos and Sandy's in Oakland. When we arrived at Puerto Vallarta an agent, Miguel, came onto the plane and escorted them through customs and passport control, taking them up to the head of the line. They were so excited and disoriented with landing ("How will we find our things?" Carlos wondered) they rushed off without saying good-bye.

In Dharma talks here, because of the translation, I find, as usual, I'm speaking in a very simple, dignified, almost formal language. It reminds me of the fake English Hemingway used in some of his novels, when, in English, he was depicting conversations in Spanish. I was always very impressed with the diction and tone of these passages. *

Dec 5, 2005. Mar de Jade. Heard this morning one of the worst of the many such stories I have heard in Mexico over the years. Tales like this are why at retreats in Mexico I usually talk about suffering and the end of suffering, about working with afflictive emotions, about meditation techniques for calming the mind, and about peace, rather than about classical Zen ("Kill the Buddha!" "Everyday Mind is the Way!"). The stories usually involve women victims of evil parents and brutal husbands — often both. Guadalupe's (not her real name) husband and parents don't address her by name. They call her "idiot," "animal," "stupid." On her birth, her mother had had to send her infant brother away to a friend, and the brother had died, which caused the mother to hate Guadalupe, constantly telling her that it was her birth that had caused the brother's death, and that it would have been much better if the brother had lived and she had died. (I've heard this same instance, exactly, recounted by several other Mexican women). About to be married to a young man with whom she was in love, Guadalupe was abducted by another man, who claimed to love her, and saw himself as chivalrously taking possession of the woman of his dreams. This man forced her sexually and held her captive for some time. Finally, having little choice, she gave in to him. (This is another common trope in Mexican love stories). When later on she escaped and went home to her village her mother told her that she was now damaged goods, had disgraced the family, had become a laughingstock, and ought simply to go back to the man, who had himself been telling her that now she was his, for no one else would have her. She did go back. She aborted one child. A second child, a son, was born. The third child was a Down's syndrome child, a daughter, born with a heart condition that took her life at four months. For the entire time of the child's life Guadalupe was in a state of enchantment, so in love with the doomed child she couldn't leave her alone for a moment, and the baby died in her arms as she wept, and she wouldn't let go of the tiny lifeless body for many hours after the death. Two more Down's syndrome babies. All born by Caesarian section, performed in cut rate medical facilities, the last one of which (cost for the procedure: $30) didn't use sufficient anesthesia so she screamed with pain during the entire delivery. Now the one normal son, 12 years old, begins to abuse her verbally as the husband still does, despite the several law suits and divorce proceedings she has brought against him. They still live together. Guadalupe has nowhere else to go and no way to support the three children. Astonishingly, both she and her husband are here at the retreat. I will meet him later. Such stories usually involve protagonists who are poor and uneducated: the passions are raw and completely untamed. The Buddha must have dealt with village people like this all the time. People for whom "greed, hate, and delusion" were not extreme words to describe the subtle roots of unhappiness or existential angst, but exact descriptions of what motivated people's behavior and ruined their lives. Guadalupe's story includes several (I'd guess dramatic and half-hearted) suicide attempts. This too must have been common in the Buddha's time. I am sure the Buddha tried to share teachings and techniques that would help — and saw too that faith in him, and faith in the sangha, would also serve to inspire people to confidence that there was a way out, a path toward peace and goodness. I try my best to do the same. 

The Zen movement, from its beginnings in China, was an elite movement — mostly a finishing practice for monks, professional Buddhists who'd been for some time practicing sila (morality) and had earnestly studied and worked with the Buddhist teachings. What they needed to hear was: put all that down! Go straight to the heart of the matter! This message suits educated Westerners too, who are on the whole capable of working with, having been purified of, the gross passions. It's the subtle forms of holding onto self that they're concerned with, and that cause their suffering. Education — ordinary, conventional education, reading, writing, reflecting, knowing some history, math, etc. — for all its shortcomings really does help. Just going to a good school for a while transforms your character. You may still have plenty of problems, but less commonly problems like Guadalupe has — or, at least, less luridly. Poor people seem to be divided more or less equally into beatific saints and terrible sinners, their poverty either crushing or elevating their souls. Middle class educated people are more likely to be neurotic. Unless they are very neurotic and also drink or take drugs, in which case they too are deadly. 

Noticing Jesus (not his real name), Guadalupe's husband. He's a cheerful, slightly sardonic fellow, with a bit of a swagger, as you would expect, but, as you would not expect, seems to be quite serious about and focused on the practice. Sits pretty still and pays attention even during the meals. When I met and spoke with him it turned out he was not the monster Guadalupe had led me to expect — or was, possibly, a reformed monster. He seemed to understand the practice, to see what I was getting at in the Dharma talks, and was quite open to being changed and challenged by what he was hearing and experiencing. Came in with a list of things to tell me. He'd met a Baptist preacher who's taught him the Bible: he'd studied night and day and as a result had decided to change his life. He'd been a violent and a bad man, but had given that up, stopped drinking, changed his behavior. He had problems though with his wife, who was flighty, and didn't do a good job taking care of the children. I told him that God was apparently grabbing hold of him by the collar in giving him a troublesome wife and two Down's babies, and telling him, "Jesus, it's not enough that you change your life and become a good man: you must also become a saint!" This made Jesus laugh. But I told him he could do it, must do it, and that the practice would help him. By the end of the retreat both Jesus and Guadalupe were inspired and happy and gave me many expressions of gratitude. They wanted several photos taken with me, and gave me photos of them, with their children. *

Dec 6. Mar de Jade. I told people in the retreat not to "leak" out of their eyes. Instead to stay with the presence of the body, the breath, the sense of awareness and groundedness rooted there, to allow seeing to take place in serenity. Accepting what the eye receives, enjoying it and letting it go, rather than always mindlessly grabbing with the eyes, seeing nothing, and losing yourself. 

Walking on the beach, up and down and up and down, as I like to do, feeling the loveliness of the place, the sand, the water, the sky, not so many people, I thought, "what makes this beautiful?" and I thought "It's not beautiful but there's a feeling I have that makes me think this that I'm seeing is beautiful." Where does the feeling come from? Why is it associated with certain things, places on the earth, lovely sights, a face, a form, etc.? (The young Mexican women so beautiful I am in constant awe of them). It's a capacity, a potential of the mind that's constantly present, but is only activated in response to particular stimuli. It could be cultivated in response to anything, or almost anything. But it's not. Possibly God created this physical world so as to activate this function of the mind in us. Or at least, as far as we are concerned, God (who always exists as God as far as we are concerned) created the world. So, for us, the world is given as a constant possibility for opening. 

This morning a flock of pelicans overhead. Like calligraphy in the sky, the form they make going by, now a V, then a U, then a straight or waving line as individuals, constantly in complex motion, change position in rank, all improvisational and co-operational and beautiful.

The other night, coming back to my room I saw a bird on the path, very large, looked like a heron of some sort, with a striking black and white face and crest on top of the head. It stepped along calmly, regally, certainly noting my presence, and that of the others walking along below. I imagine it was looking for things to eat in the grass.


Norman Fischer