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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
summer 2006| 96 |buddhadharma Outside a classroom at an alternative high school, I rifle through my bag for a Power Bar and bottled water. In this brief respite (I have eight classroom visits, from the Bronx to Coney Island), I wonder what I’m doing here. These students are negotiating abusive fami- lies, teen pregnancies, criminal records, and a neighborhood culture where a girl who ventures into Manhattan for the first time “to look around” is taking a risk in openly admitting such inquisitiveness to me. Me? I’m packing a memoir. As soon as I enter, the class of primarily Black and Latino boys with smooth faces and baggy clothes starts clapping. “That was a good story you wrote,” a boy blurts from the front row before the teacher can introduce me. Really? The musings of a scholarship student who dealt with flunk- ing out of college by ordaining in Thai- land’s forest tradition? I want to cover his translucent cheek with kisses. The teacher, who’s bought Thai snacks to welcome me, points to the blackboard, where students have written questions. Unlike other classrooms, where I’m greeted with orgies of shouts (“Miss, what’s it like to shave your head and eye- brows?” “Miss, do you have any kids?”), these students aren’t playing. I’m stunned. This class of Bronx buddhas has scrawled in chalk the very question my Power Bar self has been asking for the two years I’ve been touring: How can someone be both compassionate and detached? I opt for the easy out. Buddhist con- cepts are often mistranslated and misun- derstood in the West. I explain compassion and detachment. Compassion is easy; most religions that have migrated to the Bronx stress the importance of selflessness and serving all beings freely. The only dif- ference may be the Buddhist acceptance of nonhumans as beings. More complicated is the idea of vairaagya, usually trans- lated as “detachment,” which Webster’s defines as “disinterest in or indifference to others.” Dharma tweaks: disinterest in desire (greed, anger, prejudice, pos- session), indifference to worldly karma. A life of compassionate detachment or detached compassion still means taking full responsibility for others. I gaze at their bronze faces and impro- vise: “It’s the opposite of toxic love. You know, folks who want to control or own you and call that love.” Wearily, they nod. A teacher later tells me that more than one has had to stab or pour boiling water on an abusive parent. But I haven’t really answered the question of how to be. Like many first-time memoirists, I’d naively assumed that people would buy my book for the writing. Oh, how they’d swoon at my metaphors and pay $25 a pop to sample my dual narrative! But upon publication, I found myself face-to-face with readers ravenous for the same thing I’d been seeking in the temple: strategies for living. And suddenly I was not a writer, but a gateway. Audiences demanded to know my current spiritual practice. I was asked to give dharma talks and assess Bud- dhist politics. Strange e-mails beginning Hi Faith (as if we were old friends) requested personalized book recommendations and advice on meditation, dead marriages, travel to Thailand. Even sadder were the letters from prisoners desperate to pub- lish, transcend, or simply correspond. And though I didn’t have time to write my ail- ing father in Nigeria, I responded to every reader’s message, each request. As year 1 of dashing from class to car, bus terminal, train station, airport, blurred into year 2, devouring family vacations and university breaks, I bought a Black- berry to schedule “The Faith Show.” I learned to “perform intimacy” – to look audiences in the eye and share my story over and over, as if for the first time. Strangers, having read about my life, confessed theirs. Six hours per day left me prostrate in hotel rooms, craving real intimacy but too exhausted to call the friends I hadn’t spoken to in months. Just me, cable TV, a stiff brandy, and a bloody steak. It wasn’t A Star is Born, but perfor- mance had replaced real life. Fortunately, a Mennonite poet who’d been similarly blindsided when her first book came out (and everyone from a traditional religious background thought she was speaking directly to her/him) took one look at my crazed schedule and eyes, and led me gently back to my goal: I became a writer to integrate art, spiri- tuality, and politics – to give in a way that was true to me. “Your book was your gift,” she reminded me, her voice like a mother’s caress. “And if you spend all your time trying to give every reader something else, you won’t be able to do your job.” My father, an Anglican priest and ex-politi- cian with a pacemaker and a bullet shar- ing space in his chest, agreed: “You can’t help anyone if you kill yourself!” And from these unlikely buddhas came an answer I might actually learn to live and not just perform. Choose your best gift and be detached and compas- sionate in giving it out – to the girl not afraid to take her first subway ride into a new world; to the boy not afraid to read his way there and talk about it; to the one who needs to be treated with detachment and compassion – yourself. Book Tour in the Bronx By Faith Adiele Faith adiele is the authOr OF Meeting Faith: an inward Odyssey, which was selected FOr the Pen BeyOnd Margins award FOr Best BiOgraPhy/ MeMOir. she is an assistant PrOFessOr OF creative writing at the university OF PittsBurgh. journeys mikeholmes