People ask me: Why go far away to see the tsures of life (tsures is Yiddish for troubles)? Don’t you see enough in your own back yard? My work partner, Sensei Koho Mello, and I are in Brazil to look at putting final touches for our bearing witness retreat in Bahia which starts on April 30, but why bother?
You don’t have to go to Brazil, Poland, Rwanda, or anywhere else to see the truth of what the Buddha taught so many years ago, that life is suffering, that no one is immune to disappointment, that racism abounds, that anti-semitism abounds, that religious prejudice abounds, or that, as my friend likes to say, the rich are always screwing the poor (if not individually, then certainly through political/social/economic systems).
In a time of climate change, you fly elsewhere to see different versions of the same thing? Witnessing the struggles of undocumented Latino families in the next town is not enough? Seeing the struggle of working-class, born-in-the-USA Americans to put food on the table is not enough? The fight against logging of forests in your own Happy Valley–that’s not enough?
I put this question to my host here in Porto Alegre, Ovidio Waldemar, psychiatrist and an early pioneer of family therapeutic systems in Brazil, who will be at our May retreat in Bahia, and he said: “It’s a state of consciousness. It’s like looking at a diamond. You see it from one side, a glittering, flat surface, and you think you know what it is. You see another side, and now that you’ve seen two sides you know there’s a little more to the story. And finally you see it from more and more sides, and now you realize–it’s a diamond. Wow, I didn’t know that!”
It’s not just suffering you see, but also kindness, love, humor, joy, devotion, and awakening to the essence of humanhood. Yes, I know, there’s so much love and caring back home. Jimena and Byron, through whom I transmit funds for the local immigrant community, brought me to the Boston airport in bad weather and will pick me up very early on Saturday morning when I return. Do I have to go to Brazil to bear witness?
It changes my consciousness as to what is possible in this world. I see the fuller diamond.
Yesterday, Ovidio took Koho and me to Acao Paramita, a Tibetan center outside Porto Alegre, for a presentation on the Zen Peacemakers. We are here in Porto Alegre, south of Bahia, to also talk of Bernie’s book, Instructions to the Cook, and the book I co-authored with Roshi Egyoku Nakao, The Book of Householder Koans. But first, Ovidio suggested that we visit a small favela very close to the large Tibetan residential center. “There’s a woman there,” he said.
It poured during our entire drive, but when we met Dionisia Machado the rain stopped.
The heavyset, short woman greeted us outside a small, new community center only completed in the past year. Before that, she had cooked for the community’s children lunch every day in her own much smaller house, all at no pay. Now, in the large, bare room she feeds some 75 children their main meal (and for many practically their only real meal) for the day, which consists mostly of rice and beans. She has no money for meat She has been doing this for years.
The second floor consists of half a dozen old, donated computers and another 10 chairs where the children can get support for their studies or do homework. She opens up a tiny storage room which contains a few bag of beans, pasta, and cornmeal. A family with 6 children had just arrived in the favela and the children had tasted beans for the first time because they’ve never had even beans till now
Adjacent to the supply closet is a small space with a long cloth on the bare floor, and on it some thin sofa cushions on which mothers can sit for silence and meditation. She has learned meditation from Lama Samten and his community members.
Everyone who lives there has once been homeless, including Dionisia, and came here to squat in a development project left unfinished when the developers ran out of money. No water, no electricity, the roads becoming mud in the rain. The Tibetan center helped them obtain legal status in the unfinished homes and finally a real infrastructure.
“What do people do for work?” I ask her.
“They work in odd jobs–construction, house cleaning, anything they can get.” And they send their children to Dionisia for lunch.
“I drank for years,” she told us, seated at the table, “but I stopped.” She is 71 and was once deeply afraid of death, but no longer. She does her little bit; that’s enough.
But she has plans. Walking with great difficulty, she takes us up heavy, steep, stone stairs to her own home where she once fed the children in the front room. She no longer needs the front room for that purpose, instead she wants to open a bakery and train mothers to bake cakes for sale while their children are being cared for in the building below.
Dionisia has 6 children and 10 grandchildren. Once a year, on her birthday, her children gather to be with her and bring a bouquet of flowers, and each child presents one flower to her before beginning to celebrate. On her last birthday she told them: “Don’t bring anything. Let’s come and cook together, eat, and then bring food to the homeless families under the colonnade in Porto Alegre.” She had lived there while homeless.
They resisted, that’s not what they were coming for, they were coming for a party. Besides, who wants to remember that time? In the end, they did as she asked. “But you know what made me happy?” she says. “My daughter had a birthday where she lives, and what she wanted for her birthday was to cook a birthday meal with her children and bring the food to the homeless families under the colonnade.”
We walk back down to the small community center below. The neighbor’s radio blasts loud music the entire time we’re there. Dionisia pauses on the steps, resting her thick, arthritic legs, and says: “That music used to bother me very much, but now I hardly hear it. And I am not afraid of death.”
Today Koho and I head off to Bahia.