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Books and Buddhism

In early November, I read Alice Walker’s The Cushion in the Road, and I am still thinking about it. It’s a compilation of essays, letters, and journal entries that cross the genres of personal and professional writing, which I admire. I like how she writes about her upbringing in a poor, patriarchal, Christian home/country/society and how, throughout her life, she has had mixed feelings about her experiences with all these facets of her past. She foregrounds meditation in her verses, which is largely related to Buddhism, and she embraces some of the Buddhist philosophy as well. But she is not a devoted member of any religion, nor of any one group of any kind. She writes about her volunteer and activist work all over the world, albeit mainly with groups of women, for the sake of all of humanity. She embraces love, affection, and sexuality/sensuality with and between all people. She doesn’t point her finger at any one person, place, or thing that could be considered evil or at fault for human suffering, but rather she focuses on advocating for world peace, human kindness, and the protection of the environment and all its creatures. Walker has had many reasons to be angry, disappointed, and resentful of others, and yet, for her, the emotion that challenges and defeats all other emotions is compassion.

Compassion is one of the key teachings of Buddhism. Walker recommends that her readers also check out Amy Tan’s novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, which also has Buddhist subject matter. It is a story about Americans traveling in Burma, on a trip organized by a sixty-three-year-old, philanthropic and educated woman. I will write more about this novel, for it deserves a blog of its own, but, for now, I will discuss a few specific moments in which Buddhism arises. The tourists are curious and, in some cases, clueless, about Buddhism and how it relates to everyday life in Burma. For example, they assume Buddhism foregrounds non-violence and vegetarianism, yet they are horrified when they see screaming and howling pigs killed on the street. Their opinions change about this assumed contradiction, when they are reminded that many people in Burma are starving and must eat what’s available. They learn that “saving fish from drowning” is a phrase to describe how fisherman trap fish with large nets and lay them out, alive, to die a slow death. Members of the group, especially the women, feel compassion for the fish and contemplate the processes that are undergone to bring food to their own tables. There are also passages in the novel about Buddhist notions of surrendering one’s ego and desire, specifically for material goods, but also the human desire for ownership and control. And maybe this aspect of the novel mostly closely relates to Walker’s Buddhist sentiments and somewhat women-centered advocacy. My mom has said she believes women, as they age, somewhat blossom, and become more multi-dimensional, whereas, men become more introverted, or to be more blunt, self-centered. This is a stereotype, but it perhaps rings true for a lot of people, especially ones who were raised in masculine-dominant settings. I agree that many women grow more confident and self-assured with age and experience. Walker deliberates on aging as a woman in society, proposing that she has become more liberal and experimental as she grows older, and not because she feels time is running out, or because she fears death. Perhaps inspired by notions of reincarnation, she contemplates whether dying is not an end, but just one form of transformation. For me, this relates to the conclusion of my memoir, in which I discuss how time and experience have made much of my anger, guilt, and self-blame evaporate.

Last weekend, husband and I ate dinner at one of our favorite Japanese/Thai restaurants, Sake Bomb, where I kept staring at a Buddha image over the sushi bar. Here, the face of Buddha was rounded and smiling. He seemed to fit right into his placement, for he was watching over the sushi chefs and their offerings of colorful, delicate pieces of fish and carefully prepared and plated sushi rolls. I thought then that I wanted to paint a Buddha. The next morning, I wasn’t consciously thinking about Buddha or Buddhism when I completed this painting of our cat, Arty, known for his charm, curiosity, and affectionate nature. He often sleeps in the basket in which I keep bath towels, and sometimes when I use the bathroom, I see just a paw sticking out from the towels, or his sleepy face looking back at me, as he prepares to follow me on my daily journeys. I titled the painting “Portrait of Arty: Buddha Amongst Bath Towels.” I certainly enjoy just looking at it in moments of meditation and gratitude.

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