By Ayya Dhammadīpā
Where can we stand, but right here in this place, feeling the burning of the world? What else can we do but find the cool, still place within and the warm, gentle gaze for all people who live in fear, oppressed, enraged?
Stalls at the Eastern Market were filled with colorful fabrics, colorful foods, and colorful paintings of local landscapes, inviting folks to engage in the forgetfulness of shopping. The two of us—my daughter and I—walked through, casual and carefree on a Sunday in the District of Columbia. There was no need we were trying to fill, so we glided past the folks who were waiting in quiet desperation for cash-paying customers. We went on walking through the streets, though the day was so windy that the clothes fell from their hangers, and a tent lifted up and away from the tables it was meant to protect. Despite the turbulence, the folks behind the tables and under the tents felt compelled to stay, in the hopes of obtaining their weekly sustenance.
It was warm enough though, lacking the crispness of true autumn. So, when we arrived at the door, we were content to stand outside the restaurant and wait for the proper time. Eventually the minutes became 00 and the hour 11, and the server came to the door to let us in. It took her quite some time to open that door. She had to unlock the padlock, remove the chains, and turn the final deadbolt. It was a procedure that made clear the fear that lay behind those doors, the fear brought on by those whose desperation was not so quiet. This is the reality of the city, many people act out their frustration with the systems of economic and social oppression, and many others live in fear of those people.
On another day, a few weeks later, around the corner and down the block, we sat down in the hopes of eating foods like those of our Hispanic ancestors. The young, dark-skinned, dark-haired man filled the water glasses, smiled at the “thank you” I offered. Yet that was the only time I caught his downcast eyes. Betraying his inner world, the look on his face revealed his displeasure at having to pick up the dirty dishes. I felt the weight of my position, and the stark contrast of my experience as one with a white face and his experience as one with a brown face, though we are both Hispanic.
After this meal, my daughter and I planned to walk back through what we had already seen of the Market. We thought we already knew the place. Instead, I was confronted with another act of desperation. A man approached me, stood face-to-face, pleading for answers, earnestly seeking. Looking him in the eye was the only way to meet his thirst, his request for peace, his demand that the world be just for Black men like him. I told him that the world is an integrated set of conditions that harmoniously fit together to form what we see. I told him that, if we want peace, we must begin by being peace for ourselves. He spoke of guns and violence not far from where we were standing. I reminded him of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., and his exhortation that we stand in our places. He reminded me that the good Reverend Doctor was shot in the head. “No one heard him,” he said, wincing at his own words, his pitch rising with the strain, his face leaning in toward mine. “They heard him,” I said quietly. “We heard him.” The man paused, tilted his head, and seemed to have heard me. He asked for my name, and I gave it to him, knowing however that his seeking is not about me.
Where can we stand, but right here in this place, feeling the burning of the world? What else can we do but find the cool, still place within and the warm, gentle gaze for this man and all people who live in fear, oppressed, enraged? We mustn’t turn down their volume or walk only where we can’t see them. We must keep facing injustice wherever it appears, in whoever’s life we find it.
Later that day, I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a grand tribute to a dead white man, carved in white marble. I looked out over the reflecting pool, recalling photos I had seen of the good Reverend Doctor speaking powerfully, urgently to the crowd of thousands of earnest seekers, so many years ago.
My eyes stung with the truth of the former president’s words, though he was referring to the Civil War and I am referring to a different kind of “war,” the social and economic wars that are happening all over the world today.
“…in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men [and women and folks], living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…”
I appreciate these words because they point to a skillful response that I can offer. They point to the idea that to truly lift people from oppression is to value them as human beings, even if, or perhaps especially if, they struggle. They point to the recognition that their lives are just as worthy of care and honor as anyone’s. They point to the fact that it’s my duty, not just the president’s duty, to use my voice, my resources, even my body to acknowledge that they have always had immeasurable human value and that their profound troubles matter. And when I do that, it helps to ensure that they are accorded their proper place.
I invite you today to consider all the people, here in the U.S. and around the world, who are earnestly seeking your voice, your resources, your body to help the world recognize their immeasurable human value. We must hear them.
BGR Board member Ayya Dhammadīpā is the founder of Dassanāya Buddhist Community in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a fully ordained bhikkhuni in the Theravāda tradition and a Dharma Heir in Soto Zen. In addition to English, Ayya teaches in Spanish, an expression of her Latin heritage.