Monday 3 January 2011

Sacred Africa:Forgiveness

This picture was taken at Emoyeni, a retreat centre north-west of Johannesburg. Thato and I were two of the retreatants placing rocks in a pile that will one day be a stupa. To be building something sacred on the soil felt like a significant step; especially as the retreatants included a range of the ethnic hues that make up the ‘Rainbow Nation.’ Yes, there’s Dhamma in the soil: it became clear from the retreats at Emoyeni and Dharmagiri that interest in Dhamma as a practice and as a culture is growing among the black and Indian communities. Dharmagiri is also helping to induct black teachers as part of its Dhamma community leaders' program. And the energy also goes back to the wider community: Dhamma communities such as Dharmagiri and The Buddhist Retreat Centre both support HIV/AIDs projects in their respective neighbourhoods (Woza Moya and Khuphuka respectively).

On another front, the image of a nation traumatised by the crimes that the apartheid government committed against its people can bear some adjustment. The darkness remains, perhaps for another generation, but the forces of reconciliation and goodness keep breaking through. Not that it’s an easy process. At Dharmagiri and the Buddhist Retreat Centre an image that depicts the process for me is presented by the land. Hillsides that were once thick with non-native and water-demanding pines have been clear-cut and gradually the original native flora has either been deliberately planted or is re-establishing itself. The change is slow ( in human terms) and meanwhile involves stripping everything back to bare soil. For a while, the scene is one of naked devastation. Not a pretty sight.

When it comes to meeting human ignorance, including our own, the process is even messier and takes greater skill. Nature has no shame, no image to protect, no fear of being seen as ugly and raw. It doesn't do denial. Humans do, quite naturally: a good part of our brain activity is about filtering out what is unnecessary or intolerable. And particularly among societies where the assumption is that our personalities can be in control of our instinctual nature, there is an additional reflex of ego-defence against acknowledging greed, selfishness and anger when they arise. (Along with the denial of our pain, death and dependence.)

Earlier societies found a place for the sub- (or pre-) personal instincts by placing them under the supervision of gods and spirits. Managed by cathartic or healing magic, evil could be met as a force ‘out there’ and propitiated or warded off - although never eliminated. So it lurks in the shadows of the psyche. In the Buddhist context however, meeting and overcoming the host of Mara is the defined and graduated goal, and one which demands self-revelation. The first responsibility for a Dhamma-practitioner is to check acting on harmful impulses. Then to witness the seeds of evil in the heart, and how they have established roots in behaviour. This full acknowledgement of corrupting tendencies in the heart/mind deflates the drama of evil: it’s not self, not a demon, at this level, it’s just ignorance with a swagger. Normalising the corruptions in this cool and matter-of-fact way disengages the reflex of denial, and allows the mind to study how corrupting tendencies arise and therefore how they cease. In fact, the Buddha declared that a person couldn't be called wise and accomplished person until he or she had completed this process:

I say, it must be understood thus: ‘These are unwholesome habits’ and thus: ‘Unwholesome habits originate from this.’ and thus: ‘Unwholesome habits cease without remainder here...’ M.78.9, trans Ven Nyanamoli, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Pubs.

The process is all in a day’s Dhamma-work. Moreover, the frequently repeated comment is that someone who acknowledges a shortcoming is making great progress in Dhamma. And further that for one is ‘broken up and ruined’ if one cannot accept admonishment. So Buddhism is wise as it is merciful in acknowledging that what others call 'evil' is not self, not absolute, but unskilful kamma based on ignorance. If it’s kept under contemplative lock and key, evil is not to be covered up. And as for correcting it, the emphasis is on a pragmatic trust in the healing power of our innate honest awareness.

The further responsibility is to understand the self-view that supports ignorance and blocks that healing. Then to have clear awareness dismantle that. Full, non-judgemental awareness is the only way through the wall of defence; but it entails gaining enough support from Dhamma-practice to let go of the distractions, the shields and the attachments that self-view creates. Self-view, in its more accessible form of sakkayaditthi, amounts to a belief in a coherent immaterial entity that is roughly supervised by our personality. But because it’s held in place by reflexes of attachment, our personal self is incapable of eliminating the grasping which is the basis for defence and denial. So there has to be a shift, and a surrender to awareness. The resources of steady strength, good will and clarity that are features of this awareness make the defences and demands of self-view unnecessary.

Reviewing mind-states with full awareness is mostly a matter of relationship. It takes compassion and humility to accept that we are subject to ignorance and passion and have reflexes that automatically defend us from any accusation or perceived attack. Can we at least acknowledge that this reflex exists in all of us? Can we stop denying that we deny? It gets frustrating when you sense that someone else is denying their flaws or complicity, but having one’s corruptions laid bare to another's gaze is, for a mind based on self-view, devastating. In South Africa this was always the biggest obstacle to resolving the past: even now, politicians deny knowledge of the atrocities committed in their name. ( And South Africa is just one example). But to bring it all home: I'm generally OK at acknowledging that ten years ago, I was pretty heavy on someone, or arrogant or defensive, but to have someone present an accusation asks me to restrain and swallow a defence-reflex before we can look squarely into what is being said. So maybe it’s the case that where the crimes have been huge, the floods of guilt and pain that wash in are perhaps too much for an unresourced mind to bear.

When it comes to atonement, guilt is as much an obstacle as denial: it merely freezes the ego in the results of its immoral actions. Righteous rage against others who have committed evil may ward off further actions and motivate deep inquiry, but anger doesn't penetrate to or resolve the heart of the matter. When evil has been committed, anger and the numb weight of guilt both bring up the defence/denial reflex. For healing, what has to occur, what the Buddha recommended and what the Truth and Reconciliation Committee attempted in South Africa, was an activation of truth, of an acknowledgement of transgression that had no punitive intent. Then in that collective witnessing of the truth of human nature, genuine remorse - which is accompanied by the emotional shifts of grief and trembling - can occur. This is the beginning of the healing.

I read an account of a series of interviews with Eugene de Kock, a renowned assassin-in-chief of the apartheid regime who is currently serving 212 years in prison for murder. The account, written by a black female psychologist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, forms the focal theme of the book A Human Being Died Last Night*. In the book, de Kock, who develops a first-name relationship with Gobodo-Madikizela, is presented as well-mannered and ordinary, hardly living up to the nickname 'Prime Evil' that the Press bestowed upon him. Although his legs are chained to a chair that in itself is bolted to the floor, de Kock stands up when Pumla enters the room and offers her a seat; and he speaks mildly, reflectively and with candour throughout. He is a father whose children believed that he went to work as a businessman every day, rather than head the counter-insurgent commando unit against the ANC. Pumla's inquiry throughout the book is ‘How does a person with an ethical sense participate in acts of brutality towards other humans?’ - and the special quality she brings to this is that she does not allow her own fear and other feelings to blur that inquiry. At one point in their conversations, de Kock started to literally shake in his chains as he recognised the murders he had committed. Seeing the wave of pain run through him at touching into the truth of what he'd done, Pumla's immediate and unpremeditated impulse was to reach out and hold his hand. It is an image that will stay with me as a sign of what human beings are capable of when meeting evil: the hand of a black woman laid gently on the 'trigger hand' of a man who has assassinated dozens of her people.

That remorse discharges the results of evil through the body (whereas guilt stores it in the heart and mind) is perfect embodied logic. And what a full thought/heart/body awareness, rather than a reasonable excuse/apology, brings to the fore is another innate impulse in us, that of empathy. ‘Empathy’ or anukampam in Pali, is the emotion that the Buddha felt that inspired him to teach. Literally it means ‘trembling with’ (or in modern parlance ‘resonating’). Empathy begins in the body, in the cellular knowledge of pain and dukkha, bonding separation and death. And it is this that rises above right and wrong to offer healing. This is part of the reason why mindfulness of the body is such a central meditation theme - all our reflexes, corruptions and healing resources are embodied. Of course, the head is part of the body, and definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ play an essential part in calibrating our innate moral sense. We need to learn, as infants, that some behaviour is not to be carried out even against people who we don’t need, know, or even like. These abstract definitions moderate our reflexes and protect us from impulses of grabbing and attacking. They set the compass needle of skilful shame or conscience ( hiri-ottappa). What they, and any head system, can't do however is atone for wrong, or re-set the moral compass when the mind has seriously lost touch with its empathy. Moreover right and wrong can become so abstract that they get politicised and lose touch with our common humanity (to kill the enemies of the State/Church is right). Such as in the case of de Kock and any soldier. What we do to our men (and women) when we send them off to war is to override the sense of empathy with a politicised version of right and wrong. By many accounts, the results are traumatic for those involved; left with a frozen moral sense, they lose an important part of what it means to be human.

As the ancient societies knew, the cleansing of sin is a full-bodied process. When Priam goes to Achilles to beg for the body of his son, Hector, whom Achilles has slain, there are no legal arguments as to whose fault the Trojan War is; there are no political gestures, justifications or apologies for collateral damage. Instead, in a moment of empathy, the great warrior and the king embrace each other and weep together for all the killed, the killers and the killing that make up their field of action. A recognition of the powerful impulses that govern most humans then arises as Achilles reflects on the gods who rule their fate. In the Classical Hellenic world-view, it is Zeus who bestows the 'two urns' on humans - one full of evils and one of good fortune. To surpass these bestowals, to overcome ignorance, we have to meet them in the fullness of our embodied awareness. Then a transfiguring response can occur.

A South African example is offered by Anthony Osler in his book Stoep Zen**. He gives a brief account of an Indian doctor whose brother had been murdered for a mobile phone. The family was so traumatised that the only way they could overcome their despair was through a 'forgiveness that matched the horror.' So they decided that while their brother's murderer was in jail, they would provide the financial support to put the killer's little sister through school. Just so. Without referring to a Holy Book or sitting on a cushion, the human truth is that when push comes to shove, we have to enact the sacred. The sacred isn’t a belief or the provenance of one religion. It’s where word, heart and body are not set apart. To be fully human, to be able to meet evil, death, pain and our own blessing, we have to touch into that sacred. Nothing else is big enough.

One afternoon, when I visit the local AIDs relief centre, there is a celebration. The HIV rate is 60%, and the room is full of orphans. They are surrounded by a ring of adults. Swaying as they do so, men and women, Zulu and white, are singing.
*A Human Being Died That Night: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Pub:David Philip, Claremont, S Africa 2003.
**Stoep Zen: Anthony Osler. Pub: Jacana Media, Auckland Park, S.Africa 2008